Strawberries, Impermanence, and the First Precept

A friend of mine came to me today and asked what his wife should do about black ants eating her strawberry plants. She was thinking of spraying a pesticide around the strawberry bed, and wanted to know which pesticide is the most effective.

I empathize. It’s pretty awful to lovingly tend a food crop, just to lose it to hungry insects. Last summer, we lost many string beans to insects, then the insects moved on and the plants recovered, and we got a small, late crop of beans. But we definitely lost out on a lot of fresh, good food.
For a few minutes there, I was upset. But two things played in my mind after the initial emotion subsided:

(By the way, did you know that an emotion generally only lasts a couple of seconds to a few minutes, then backs off? The only reason it lingers longer is that we invite it to do so; but nature made us very supple in that regard. Ask yourself why you’re still angry about something or at someone an hour later. You’re clinging to your anger, that’s why. Some people do it for years. Can you imagine? Yuck.)

One - Everything passes away. 

Nothing stays the same, ever. This is the Buddhist teaching of impermanence, and it’s the biggest pillar of Buddhism. It’s the core principle of suffering: the harder we cling to something, the slipperier it gets, and the more we suffer in trying to cling to it. Once we understand that there is absolutely nothing that we can cling to, suffering loses its bite.

Two - Do not kill. This is the first of Buddhism’s Five Precepts. 

Shakyamuni Buddha instructed his disciples to abstain from any action that could cause suffering or death in any sentient being. The historical Buddha considered insects as sentient beings, as they are. Therefore, the deliberate killing of an insect is an act that defiles the mind.

I want to make a quick point on this precept, to follow up on a convo I had with a curious friend yesterday. She asked about Buddhism, vegetarianism and veganism. I’m not going to get into all the history here, but I told my friend, when she inquired about abstaining from meat in the interests of compassion, that vegetarianism, and even veganism, are not blameless.  Let me write that again: VEGETARIANISM AND VEGANISM ARE NOT BLAMELESS.

Why? There is much suffering and death connected to the production of fruits and vegetables, including organic produce. Insects, entire colonies of them, are killed when the earth is disturbed for farming. The transport of vegetables and fruits pours deadly fumes into the air, killing birds, animals, insects, and some argue, humans. 

The manufacture of tofu and seitan produces by-products that do not make the earth happy.  Even my own garden, which is designed to be insect and animal friendly, disturbs and kills sentient beings.
There’s nothing we can do about that. 

But the first of the Five Precepts was further refined in the sutras as do not deliberately kill. Like spraying pesticide on your strawberries. You don’t want to do that anyway, for your own health. And you don’t want to eat meat, because you know that animal suffered greatly and was slaughtered for the purpose of filling your belly.

Vegetarians and vegans should remove any trace of ego surrounding their decision to abstain from flesh. Pride is the always wrong reason to abstain; true compassion is the right reason. And humbling are the facts that I wrote above – no one is blameless, even the strictest vegan.

I advised by friend to tell his wife to prepare for fewer berries this summer, and to pass on the poison spray. I offered a few suggestions for mechanical barriers, and sent him off with ideas for preparing the garden - and his mind-state - for next summer.

We do what we can, knowing that we are flawed, that we can’t cling if we do not want to suffer, that killing is the darkest act of defilement, and that there are kinder alternatives that benefit all sentient beings


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