There’s a lot of talk in Buddhism about “all beings”: we are connected to all beings, we strive to liberate all beings, we work for the sake of all beings….
It’s a huge idea, one that we can never fully wrap our heads around. Sometimes we run across the phrase “sentient beings,” but that’s meaningless — life is too short for us to work out what is and is not a being we should save, a being with which we have a connection. My friends are beings, the dog next door is a being, the rock in my shoe is a being, that moment of panic I feel when I think I overslept is a being. Differentiating, on that level, is precisely what this practice is not about.
This talk of all beings has evolved over time. In the earliest Buddhist texts, it seems that we don’t see so much of it. Instead, we see teaching after teaching about the universality of experience, about our shared sameness. From the time of the Buddha, it has been taught that suffering, though it expresses itself differently according to each individual, is essentially the same for everyone. Happiness too, and anger. We may get upset for very different reasons and at different times, but that emotional experience of wanting the current situation to be other than what it is — we share that, intimately. (Much of the pain of adolescence, it would seem, is just an inability to recognize that fact. We feel alone, when the exact opposite is true.)
I suspect (and I would love for a Buddhist scholar to jump in and speak to this more authoritatively than I can) that much of the evolution of Buddhism has just been a thought exercise, a matter of people saying, If X is true, and if we factor in Y, then the logical ramifications of that must be Z. In this case, if our conditions (dissatisfaction, impermanence, the absence of an unchanging self) are universal, then just by that definition alone, we share a profound connection. If we are fundamentally the same, then we are not fundamentally different. If we are not different, then the distinction between you and me is a false one. If that’s true, then we are, in a manner of speaking, “one.”
If there is no line between you and me, then your suffering is mine, and your happiness is mine. And by extension, what’s mine is not mine, and what’s yours is not really yours. It’s out of this kind of math, I suspect, that Buddhism came to take such an interest in interdependent origination, and that it arrived at a figure like the Bodhisattva, someone who accepts responsibility for all beings. It’s a logical — and beautiful — development.
The difficulty with these kinds of wide-scale teachings, I think, is that they are so overwhelming as to seem unreal. It makes for great philosophy, but for many of us, it remains an abstraction, something fun to talk about but not something that is immediate and felt in our daily lives. Maturity and empathy can lead us to see, firsthand, that other people’s experiences are not foreign from our own, and that can make us much more skillful one on one. That is no small thing — working from that place of understanding is the foundation of almost any truly honest encounter. It’s something we all need to explore, and remind ourselves of, daily.
But extending that to this thing we call “all beings” is much more difficult. How do we interact with all beings? How do we take responsibility for all beings? We can start with the person we’re with. Following this math, the person in front of you is the face of all beings, so how you treat him or her is how you are treating the world. (This applies to objects as well, which I want to write about later.) On a practical level, if we can remember just that, maybe it’s enough. But I do think there’s value in exploring this heavy, looming abstraction of “all beings.” It’s there, so it’s there for us to confront.
When we’re alone, where is the confrontation? The person that is always in front of me is me. How do I treat myself? And does it matter? We don’t need to believe that all beings are one, or that we’re all connected on some invisible spiritual level, to find this worthy of our consideration. Even the skeptic can recognize that reality is made up of its parts. I am one of those parts. You are one of those parts, just as our organs and cells are our components. If one of my cells is unhealthy, even if I don’t notice that, even if it doesn’t have measurable repercussions throughout my body, still, that cell is one part of the picture that is me, of my health, of my functioning. However we frame this, it’s not that difficult for us to accept that what happens to me is happening to the universe; what I do is an extension of everything and everyone.
This is the basis of responsibility.
I started thinking about all this differently a few years ago, when my wife Tracy was pregnant with our first child. Tracy has always been careful about what she eats, but as soon as she knew she was pregnant, eating healthy foods became a serious matter. She read all the literature and knew what to eat and what not to. She was eating for two. She accepted responsibility for this other life, and in doing so, accepted that her body is not completely her own. To any mother, I think, this must seem obvious, but it’s not limited to mothers. I suspect it’s also a well-known realization among people who dedicate themselves to others: firefighters, nurses on call, soldiers, and on and on and on. This body is not just mine — it is also part of a larger function. If I keep it healthy, that is in service of that function. If I let it get weak or sick or injured, then that hinders my ability to be skillful, to fulfill that mission.
Watching Tracy eat for two, I had this idea: What if I were eating for all beings? What would I put in my body? What would I refuse? If we take these teachings of connectedness and singularity to one extreme, then my body is the body of all beings; what I eat is the food of the world. I forget this little idea of mine often — old habits die hard, and I don’t always eat the healthiest thing on the menu. But when I do remember it, for example at the supermarket, it changes the way I shop. I can use all manner of twisted rationalization to let myself eat those chips, or get the big box of cookies. However, if I imagine, even for a moment, that by eating I am feeding others, then so-called “foods” with no nutritional value reveal themselves to be absurd. They are absurd, of course, but this frame helps me to see it. (One could completely misinterpret this whole idea in disastrous ways, I know: “All beings sure would like a beer right now,” “I think I’m going to treat the universe to a big piece of chocolate cheesecake,” and so on. We have to look with the eyes of an adult, or it all falls apart very quickly.)
Take this as a true understanding of the body, or take it as an exercise — in either case, the effect is the same. When we allow ourselves to feel the responsibility of caring for all beings, we intuitively know how to respond. If it’s just an idea, just a philosophy, we can get stuck on the seeming impossibility of it — how to save all beings? We stumble because we’re looking for the heroic act, the grand gesture. But if we take it to its logical end, if we imagine that when I eat, all beings eat, and when I talk, all beings talk, and so on, then we start to simply offer up the best of ourselves, of our best selves. We listen to those little voices in our heads telling us to sit up straight and floss and walk the three blocks to the post office instead of driving. We take care in our actions, and in doing so, we take care of something much, much bigger.
We know so much already. We know what to do. We know how to offer ourselves.
It’s good news, I think.
Nice post. (heck – they all are)
Do you have any thoughts on factory farming, and the suffering and violence that we support and participate in when we eat animal ‘products’..? (not to mention the disastrous environmental effects of growing and slaughtering enough creatures internationally to feed humans’ exponentially skyrocketting desires for meat, etc.)
Are your thoughts turning at all towards veganism?
Thank you. I do have a lot of thoughts on factory farming, etc.–based on what you wrote, I suspect my thoughts are pretty similar to yours. 🙂
Full disclosure: I am a partial vegetarian (partial in that I sometimes eat fish). The fact that I’m not vegan is mostly due to a hesitation to take on a diet that’s different from the rest of my little family. But it’s an issue in my life that has bothered me for a long time. As I wrote early on, one of my motivations behind writing this blog is to encourage myself to better follow the teachings as I understand them, and also simply to give greater voice to my own intuition about how best to move in the world. I know of the problems with eating fish; it bothers me that I sometimes do it anyway. I think there are perfectly reasonable and humane ways of obtaining milk and eggs, but I also know that when I buy those products in an ordinary store, they were not obtained in those reasonable and humane ways. Veganism is one very natural extension of practice, I think. I applaud your embrace of it.
I am 55 yrs old, and I am ashamed to say that I had no idea about the horrors of animal farming and slaughterhouses until last winter, when I happened to rather idly look up the situation with animal rights in Ontario (where I live) as a result of a chance conversation about ethics I had had with a libertarian acquaintance who expressed the view that only humans should be entitled to any legal “rights”. I have been an avid meat-eater my entire life, so I will certainly never be in any position to ‘judge’ any one else’s eating habits.
I was resisting veganism with all my might a few months ago, as it is inconvenient, strange, and foreign, and requires effort for the first while to convert to and continue. Thank goodness my husband and several friends have also converted, and are passionate about it.
I also thought that we could certainly buy “humane” organic dairy and eggs.
But through researching it, I learned that even in the most humane and organic farming situations, the baby chicks’ beaks are burned off, the male chicks are thrown alive into shredding machines, or thrown in huge quantities into plastic bags to slowly suffocate while waiting for garbage disposal, the over-crowding is still horrible, the quality of life is heart-breaking, and the conditions of the shipment and slaughter practices are unbelievably cruel and painful.
Re: “dairy” – we can’t get milk without constantly making cows pregnant. With each birth, the calf is taken from the mother at a few days old, and often they cry for each other for weeks, beside themselves with grief. The male calves are grown for beef, or chained into tiny veal crates where they spend 4 months completely terrified and alone till slaughter, unable to turn around or stretch out, or see daylight. The crates are kept dark, and the calf is prevented from moving much, so their muscles will atrophy, and the “veal” will be white and tender.
The cows are confined in a concrete stall their entire lives, and between calvings are milked with painful machines until they are spent and exhausted long before their normal lifespans. Then they are shipped for slaughter – often with no food for 4-5 days. The horrors of the slaughterhouse are unspeakable.
There is a documentary film called “Earthlings” that I think should be compulsory viewing for everyone aspiring to live a compassionate life in this world. It explores the issues of human interaction with animals and the world. I highly recommend it.
Thank you. I’ll try to find “Earthlings.”
For the record, when I said “reasonable and humane,” the image in my mind was of my grandparents’ neighbors when I was a kid. They had a goat–I’d go over there with a jar, watch them milk the goat, then take the jar back to my grandparents’ house and drink the milk. I loved it. My point being only that while I do take issue with the killing of animals in general, I’m not opposed, on basic principle, to eating eggs and dairy products. I am, however, opposed to how they’re acquired these days–as I wrote before, and as you’re saying, there’s really no “good version” in the store.
I recently was taken on a tour of a slaughterhouse near here where they process horse meat (a local delicacy). Quite an experience–not one I’d like to repeat, but one I recommend to anyone who eats meat.
Here is a link http://youtu.be/gLJJGL65aEQ it has polish subtitles. It is shocking I couldn’t stop crying
Thank you for the beautiful post.
True parenthood develops one naturally into a bodhisattva,as the parent’s actions and tensions are beyond a personal realm. The old heroes of war were well aware that their fall or victory was not a single man’s business. So they took great care to perfect their gait and sword. So did the bodhisattva who hid certain teachings for some centuries so that the humanity should mature itself to receive it.Thank you.