“Western” Buddhism’s insistence on political orientation is not new

This blog is not the first one to note that proclaiming that liberal politics is a natural consequence of Buddhadharma can only come from ignoring the presence of Asian Buddhist groups in America.

Here is an article from September 2008, just before the presidential election of that year, in Tricycle magazine. The article, which I’m assuming is an editorial since no author is named, started by noting how there is near unanimity in the “Western” Buddhist community and publications that the Democractic ticket is the one that aligns with Buddhadharma. The article notes that there are a number of registered Republicans Buddhists and that many of them are Asian-Americans.

One can only believe that Buddhists are naturally aligned with liberalism if no time has been spent among Vietnamese, Cambodian, Thai, Chinese, or other Asian-Americans…..At the same time, we have to be careful about stereotyping Asian-American Buddhism, a diverse phenomenon that also includes many Democrats and other liberals.

The article then goes on to talk about how the liberal position of convert Buddhists (their term, not mine) is perhaps not derived from the Dharma, but from their own origins.

When we look at the wider picture, the chorus of convert Buddhist support for liberals looks less like a religious position, and more like a class and ethnicity one.  Most convert Buddhists already supported a liberal political orientation before they became involved with Buddhism, and convert Buddhism draws heavily from a section of the educated, white, middle-to-upper class demographic that supports liberal candidates regardless of whether the individual believers are Buddhist, Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, or agnostic.  Naturally such people are attracted to elements of Buddhism that seem to resonate with liberal values, but it is worth asking how much of this is an inherent liberal bias within Buddhism, and how much is the process of picking and choosing which selects only compatible parts of Buddhism and leaves aside other, central practices and views that are less supportive of liberal positions.

There is a brief discussion of the silencing of any other position in the convert Buddhist community:

Even within this demographic of convert Buddhism, there is reason to think that there are significant numbers of right-wing Buddhists who largely remain quiet about their views, perhaps from a feeling that they are actively silenced by the strident voices of their left-wing fellow practitioners…This should suggest that Republican convert Buddhists, a sizable minority, either do not have equal access to media to express their views, or feel intimidated into not making such expressions.  The lack of a reasonable argument for Republican Buddhism, therefore, may not be because there is no such argument, but because liberal Buddhists create an environment wherein such sentiments are difficult to express. 

Voting Buddhist, September 2008, Tricycle Magazine

The article closes with an appeal to try and bridge the gap rather than widening it in this North American Buddhist community already divided along lines of ethnicity and approach to practice. I can’t help noticing the mention of the fact (unnecessary to the argument) that the author’s own vote went to the Democratic candidate, pre-empting the aforementioned brickbats from flying as they certainly would if there is reason to doubt that the author might have voted otherwise.

A theme to the othering

The attitude I mentioned in the previous post towards American conservatives doesn’t seem unconnected to the attitude towards Asians and Asian Buddhism.

How is it that the plain fact that there are many American Buddhists who are politically conservative is simply missed by many? For example, I cite Miles William’s excellent blog post with data from 2016 presidential election (visualization of data originally from the Harvard Dataverse) when even many lifelong Republicans did not vote for the GOP nominee whom they could not stand. 24.3% of Buddhists voted for Republican candidate and 3.1% for the Libertarian one. In fact, among all non-Christian religions, the one with the highest fraction voting for the GOP-Libertarian combo was the Buddhist community in the US.

Why, then, does it seem like an oxymoron in some Buddhist circles? It seems that such a view can only be formed by isolating oneself from the other Buddhist circles that are Asian American. Williams goes on to show from the dataset that among the subgroups of Buddhists by race, the one that went most heavily for the GOP candidate was Asian. Some real mental gymnastics are required to refuse to see that many Buddhists are not liberal, though the majority are.

I have in the past referred to the disparagement of Asian Buddhists and Asian sanghas in the American Buddhist context by frequent reference to the “cultural baggage” of Asian Buddhism, mentions of superstition, “faith-based” and therefore not suitable for “us”.  The solution then was to have a sangha fashioned and led by white people/teachers, for they alone are the suitable leaders as in any other sphere of American life.  Of course, the word “white” would not ever be mentioned – “westerners” will suffice.  Once a white-led sangha has been established, a liberal ethos is proclaimed, that the sangha is open and welcoming of all. To use the first person narrative for the thinking in the rest of this paragraph, it is somewhat like this — now that the sangha has been set up that is tailored exactly to my community’s tastes (this isn’t about country, within this very country, people grow up in communities with different upbringings and experiences – race, politics, wealth are not the sole differentiators, but they are important ones).  You would be welcome if you can adjust your manner and background to fit into the set-up I have created.  Never mind that the Asian congregations are also fully open to all and are also welcoming. However, there, the modes of operation of those congregations weren’t tailored by me. It is led by people who don’t look like me. I am the one who needs to adjust and learn a little bit. And that is unacceptable. 

As mentioned in the last post though, the presence of political conservatives (social as well as economic) in many Asian countries provides a clear counterexample to the claim that to be Buddhist, one has to be politically liberal.

Now, there is a ready counter to that – which is to revert to the another thread of stereotyping – that perhaps those Buddhists in those countries don’t really understand the original Dharma. Although it was preserved with great effort by those very cultures for over a couple thousand years, it took “us” to arrive on the scene, with our “rational” and “analytical” thinking (that they apparently lack) to understand the true meaning. It’s convenient that to have a more consistent (if not necessarily true) view about the politics, a supercilious attitude towards the traditional Buddhist sanghas helps, along with that towards Christianity (Catholicism is a favorite and shockingly accepted punching bag in this community).   

It’s perhaps also the motivation to frequently associate the “other” with something anti-humanist so one can feel secure that one had no option but to side with what one has already chosen and to argue that the Buddha’s teachings are best exemplified by whichever group happens to be the majority among Buddhists – for example to assume that conservatives are all homophobic or racist or lacking in compassion for the poor, just like the automatic assumption that an Asian Buddhist sangha is sexist and a hard place for women.  How about the obviously contradictory data of women who are happy and content in those sanghas?  That can also be explained away with stereotypes about Asian women! Another shocking stereotype that I have heard is that Asian sanghas more closely hew to orthodoxy and show greater deference to the monastic Sangha because Asians are “more obedient”. I don’t find it hard to imagine that if the American Buddhist community were dominated by political conservatives (as it is in some other countries), there would be frequent arguments about how liberals stand in violation of what the Buddha taught – with examples provided.

But I am just a blogger stating a pattern emerging before my eyes. I hope someone in the academic world would look more deeply and thoroughly into the connection between these two forms of othering and how distancing from the Asian sanghas is essential to maintain blindness to, and provide justification for the fact that the “American” sanghas continue to be white, liberal, middle-class social fora.

Do Buddhists have to be liberal?

The other day, as I was describing some of the strange attitudes towards Asian Americans in “western” Buddhist circles, when a friend said (as many are quick to point out as soon as the conversation turns to race), that such elitism “probably exists towards poor or rural white people as well”.

Whatever the prompt for such a remark, there is truth to this. Much of what I have spoken about in some previous blog posts is how some in the largest demographic (white, middle class, politically liberal) use the Dharma circle to relish affirming to each other the superiority (moral, “scientific”, educational whatever) of their group over others – not in exactly those words, of course.  

I have spoken of the condescension towards Asians and Asian sanghas. But the affirmation of identity doesn’t stop there. This is a crowd that looks down on others in the course of their regular lives – that’s rural folks, folks from the red parts of the state or the country, which is to say, the Midwest and the South, Christians and conservatives in general. When you live your life surrounding yourself with people who think like you, telling each other how shocked/disgusted you are with the “other”, how do you not bring that sentiment into the sangha too? And that is how it plays out.  “Western” sanghas spend an inordinate amount of their time together telling each other about how bad the conservatives are and how their political position is the opposite of everything the Dharma teaches us. 

If you were to become a member of one of these groups, you might conclude that the Buddha wanted you to vote for the Democrats (if not the most progressive wing of it), proclaim a stance against climate change (though not necessarily making any actual sacrifices for it, like eating less meat or having fewer children or pets, of course), oppose GMO, oppose Big Tech, Pharma and Wall Street, support various measures on health and housing and whatever else it is that is the current liberal political priority.

While none of these positions is really against Buddhist teachings, let me point out that both sides of the political spectrum in this very country have claimed that the teachings of Jesus really support their side.  It is no different with Buddhist teachings. It’s just as possible to cite the Buddha to support either side of the debate.  Let us note that in some countries – from Japan, to Thailand to Sri Lanka, there are plenty of Buddhists on the conservative side of the spectrum too.  Here I use the word ‘conservative’ as in both senses of the word used in America, social and economic.  

Here’s an effect of this: If you are politically conservative/Republican, you simply do not feel welcome in these “western” sanghas.  It will be normal for you to hear people, both teachers and ordinary members, openly unload on conservative figures and conservative thought. Don’t dream about saying anything that any conservative’s position on anything is reasonable. The message is clear – only by being liberal can you be a good Buddhist. 

I struggle to understand what exactly is the thinking behind this if you believe that the Dharma is a good thing for every human being.  Who is unworthy of the Dharma? The poor and the rich, both have suffering, people of all cultures and races have dukkha. Young and old, prisoner and free, criminal and law-abiding, documented and undocumented, meat-eaters and vegetarians, all of us with all our varying abilities and histories have dukkha and can benefit greatly from the Dharma the Buddha taught us out of compassion for us.  We should therefore make space for, and welcome, everyone. Except…the conservatives? People who work in tech? Landlords?  People who may be on the chamber of commerce in your city? 

I know this might well be the least agreeable of my posts here. Almost everyone will be quick to denounce an discrimination based on race (even those who might not actually be practicing what they preach), but welcoming conservatives into the sangha…not sure how many can be open to that. I mentioned attitude towards Asians in this same post because in my view, the two are connected, but I shall save that for the next post.

Note: I have used the word sangha here again in the commonly used (but not technically correct) sense – a Buddhist congregation, no reference to the monastic Sangha or the Noble Sangha is meant.

Stūpa

Stūpas hold endless fascination for me.  They are constructions with no purpose other than religious significance. Some representations are tiny, and can be placed on your desk.  Some are among the largest constructions of the ancient world. Jetavanārāmaya Stupa in Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka, built with over 93 million bricks, was one of the largest structures of the ancient world, the largest after the pyramids. 

Jetavanārāmaya Stupa in Anuradhapura (photos by the blogger). For scale, the seated Buddha in the image (yellow figure seen past the middle pillar, is life-size)
A nāga image at Jetavanārāmaya

They have different names and different shapes and styles, depending on the region. They may be called zedi (Myanmar), chorten (Tibet), chedi (Thailand), dagoba (Sri Lanka) and their counterparts found from Japan, Korea and Mongolia to Vietnam, Cambodia and India.

Some of them are said to hold relics of the Buddha himself. In many cases, they have some kind of a treasure in them, not necessarily of material value, but a reliquary nevertheless.

While these are the current interpretations by tradition, some believe that historically, they originated as burial mounds for important figures, common in the first millennium BCE in a large part of the world, from Phoenicia, across the fertile crescent, into Persia, Afghanistan and India and perhaps some other areas. The samaṇas (the Buddha was one) might have also used such structures before the Buddhist era began.

The shape itself, apart from the significance that various traditions attach to it, seems very calming and pleasing to me.  I’m not sure why, but the image of numerous stūpas passing through the mind as we go into the new year feels good.  Another such image that I find universally calming is the image of a person in meditation. It doesn’t have to be the image of the Buddha or any other famous person of any tradition.  The image of any woman or man in meditation or prayer is something pleasant – perhaps the stillness and non-threatening nature of the image is what attracts us. Which makes me feel – is it the agitated mind (of others, our own) what we really fear?

 Perhaps a New Year’s resolution-ish thing for me would be to share a little bit about some of the great stūpas and pagodas that I’ve had the good fortune to visit or hope to see some day.

Among the prominent ones, Ruwanwelisaya, the Great Wild Goose Pagoda, Bodhnath and Swayambhunath, Abhayagiri and Shwedagon Phaya.

What’s right about right view?

Maracas For Kids - Mexican Maraca Neon Colorful Maracas Bulk For Fiesta  Party Favors Baby Noisemaker - 6" Maracas Toys For Cinco De Mayo Partys,  Birthday, Fiesta Decorations, 6 Colors, 12 Pack | Chickadee Solutions

Right View (sammā diṭṭhi) is the first aspect of the Noble Eightfold Path and is also the culmination of the path. It can also be viewed as the summary of the Buddhist worldview. There are excellent books and articles describing Right View – generally taken as consisting of mundane right view (cause and effect) and supramundane right view (the Four Noble Truths). You can read different ways of presenting it discussed here, in an excellent essay by the Venerable Ṭhānissaro. Let’s discuss first, though, what does “right” mean? It’s not what we may first understand when we hear the words “right” or “good” in usual speech.

To understand it, let’s examine what the word “good” means. In many popular traditions and consequently, in the societies where these traditions have been dominant, acts can be classified into good, bad (with some allowances for gray areas and debates) based on whether an authority (a deity or temporal or even secular entity) approves of it or not. In other words, a deed is good if if can be found in a pre-defined list of good deeds and bad if in similar list of bad deeds.

In the Buddha Dhamma, on the other hand, the discussion is centered around dukkha (translated as unsatisfactoriness or suffering). An act is good (kusala) if leads to good results (removal of dukkha) and bad (akusala) if it leads to more dukkha. This definition allows the possibility of exploring for oneself whether an act is good or bad. It’s no surprise that in terms of practical acts, one would come up with lists that have a lot of commonality with most religious traditions. It’s in this sense that some other aspects of the path (right speech and right action, for example) are also translated as wise speech and wise action, or even better beneficial speech and beneficial action.

This is not to say that there aren’t clear statements of morality in the Dhamma-Vinaya, just that these training rules are derived from this view of good and bad rather than the rules being a philosophical starting point.

Sammā diṭṭhi or Beneficial View too is beneficial in just this way. To the question of what’s a beneficial view to hold for one who is keen on being free of dukkha, the answer that the Buddha provided is this one. It would be reasonable to call it a belief system that one on the path would take on. All the background above is to point out that many questions that are often asked about Sammā diṭṭhi are tangential to the teachings. These focus on whether the view is true or not, in some objective, externally verifiable sense, what constitutes sufficient evidence of these beliefs etc. That is not the sense in which it is Right. You can choose to translate it also as the Prescribed View.

This does not mean they are going to be found lacking in veracity. The Buddha says they are truths, but not truths that are in any way verifiable by one who has not yet crossed over. It is in this way that it is the culmination of the path. Once you truly understand the Four Noble Truths fully, you are already liberated. At that point, there is no need to adopt this view as a matter of taking the Teacher’s word that this is beneficial view.

A couple of other points to note: The first is that there is a self-referential aspect here. Right View lays out a few ideas. These ideas, as discussed earlier, are Right to hold in the sense of being beneficial in the contexts of kamma and dukkha, which are in turn, contained in Right View.

The second is that views, all views, are chosen. All our thoughts are formed against the background of our view, the colored glasses we wear through which we are forced to filter every experience we become aware of. What this teaching shows is that the view itself is something we have a choice over (and we can choose one that is beneficial). So let’s be aware of our view and that the same phenomenon appears differently to me relative to another person because of our view vs. theirs. This should help us be more understanding of another’s reaction.

The word “westerner”

Going back to the frequent use of the word “westerners” and “western” in American Buddhist circles, I have to always wonder what exactly the word means. I’ve already discussed some of it here. But today, I wanted to just look at the history of this word and the senses in which it’s been used in the past.

Sense A: Post World War II, as the Cold War was getting started, a new definition of “the West” was taking shape – it represented a military alliance – and this west was a concept shaped by the US. It stood in opposition to the Eastern Block of nations led by the Communist USSR. This distinction was not by skin color but more along politics and culture – Western Europe, USA and allies like CAN, AUS and NZL. It was a perfectly acceptable term in polite society.

Sense B: But prior to that, in the 19th century and upto the World Wars, as European colonial regimes observed cultures, usually of their colonies and studied them, colonial scholarship produced a clear “us” and “them”, the westerners and the “orientals” (no longer an acceptable term in polite American discourse).

Much of this scholarship also sought to establish the superiority of the west in racial terms, introduced words like “caucasian”, established that “logic” and “linear thinking” and “science/technology” as originated in the West, while it conceded/asserted that some kind of “spiritual” endeavors was the realm of the East. Often the studies were alongside religious studies by Christian missionaries/priests whose intention it was to learn enough about the religions of the east like Hinduism and Buddhism so as to be able to compare them unfavorably to Christianity.

The meaning that is in vogue these days among American Buddhists seems closer to sense B (minus any claims about racial differences or even a mention of race) as evidenced by the fact that Polish, Yugoslav, Russian, Romanian Buddhists are western Buddhists under the prevalent nomenclature. So we clearly don’t mean former NATO countries, but white/European countries.

Some will argue that this is not the case at all – the term means a person of European cultural heritage – and not race. So, they would argue that Black people in the US, for example whose cultural life may have been shaped by their American experience solely (which in turn is shaped at least in large part by a European heritage) and not by African culture would be westerners and therefore it’s fine as nomenclature. In effect, that this is a geographical term – all people in “the West” are westerners. But is that an honest line of argument?

Here are a few questions for pondering:

  • Do you think of Mexicans of largely indigenous blood, but maybe Spanish-descended culture, when you use the word ‘westerner’? What about non-white people of South America?
  • What about the Americans who have immigrated from Africa in the last few decades? They are definitely not eastern. Do they fall under your use of the word ‘western’, though?
  • And of course, Asian Americans – westerners or easterners? Clearly, there was Buddhism in the West from the 19th century onwards, long before “Western Buddhism” of the westerners came into existence in the 1950s, 60s and 70s. I can’t think of a clearer demonstration of the fact that in Buddhist discourse, Asian Americans are not considered westerners.

Just know that the sense in which Buddhist circles use the word is as the opposite of a word that is no longer okay to even say.

As I mentioned in this post, go to any Asian American Buddhist community and tell me if the teacher uses words like “we westerners” in their teaching. If they don’t, one has to wonder why they don’t consider themselves included in by the word. Is it enough to just insist that all Americans would feel included if we say “in our western culture/upbringing/way of thinking”? So why is it a term that enjoys such popularity in certain other Buddhist circles?

Same spelling, but different meanings when said differently?

A post on a lighter topic. My dad showed me this example when I was less than 10 years of age:

MINUTE can be pronounced in two ways to mean different things – a noun which means 60 seconds or an adjective which means very small. He asked me if there are other such pairs.

As it happens, I came across one such this week

WOUND: past and past participle of the verb wind (like winding a watch, if anyone remembers such an activity)

WOUND: n. an injury to living tissue caused by a cut, blow, or other impact, typically one in which the skin is cut or broken. Also, a verb to connote inflicting such injury.

Right there is another pair

WIND: noun, as in The Wind in the Willows

WIND: the verb whose past participle is the aforementioned WOUND.

If you know more such pairs, please mention them in the comments below.

Note: different accepted pronunciations of the same word to mean the same thing do not count. Nor do the words which have multiple meanings with the same pronunciation (for example, ‘set’ has 58 meanings as a noun and 10 as a verb, but it does not count here)

Where can I find the Buddha?

Why, everywhere, of course! I mean evvvvverywhere. I’m speaking about images of the Buddha here.

You can expect to find him represented in a lot of the usual places – shrines and walls of people’s houses (the purpose is similar). But then also in some places you don’t expect, like billboards. Then there are some that can be quite disturbing to people who hold an image of the Buddha as sacred (and they number in the hundreds of millions too). For example, on this trash can, seen on Telegraph avenue in Berkeley, California.

Another common place to find Buddhas images in countries not traditionally Buddhist is the bathroom – unimaginable in a Buddhist culture.

I can see why people do this: In a century that saw bathrooms go from a place you want to spend the least time in, to a trendy, cool part of the house, it’s natural to want a peaceful setting. And there are few sights as calming to behold as a person sitting in meditation. However, can’t one be a little sensitive to those who view a buddha rūpa as more than more decoration? Whatever, one does in their house, at least avoid such bathroom decorations in public places where such people might have to come upon them, like in restaurants and spas?

Btw, it can be go beyond space decoration, as this toilet seat shows.

I have seen a Buddha head holding up shoes for display in a shoe store in California. Numerous images of the Buddha on shoes, like this one. All unimaginable in traditionally Buddhist countries. There have been some concerns about similar use of images of the Hindu deity Ganesha on toilet seats.

This has been discussed previously in many corners of the ‘net, such as on this thread. Many have pointed out – in a Western country, would you encounter a sacred symbol from Christianity, Islam or Judaism in a toilet? Then why so many Buddhas and the occasional Ganesha. Of course, on these threads, you will also find several people claiming that the Buddha himself would not be offended and that people objecting to this don’t really understand the “real” teaching of the Buddha. And that whole ball of string about “you are confusing Buddhism with a religion” etc. and a repetition of the supercilious view that Buddhists from Buddhist cultures don’t really understand the Buddha’s teachings – and their objections arise from such ignorance.

What a strawman argument, the one about the Buddha being offended! As if anyone said the Buddha could be hurt by this…the point always was…are you being disrespectful to Buddhists. Furthermore, there are accusations of intolerance aimed at those who aren’t chill about this – a bit ironic.

Oh, somewhere in this gamut, are gardens. In some cases, they are mere garden decorations, in others, they are outdoor shrines, tended with respect…Just know this – the practice of religious heads as decorative items in western gardens began in colonial times, which colonial officials in Asia bringing priceless art works and broken heads, the heritage of the people of the colonies, back home to Europe to display – not out of any reverence for the deity, but as decorative pieces and proof of the travels and worldliness of the “owner”.

References:

Inside the Wonder House: Buddhist Art and the West, In Curators of the Buddha, edited by Donald Lopez. University of Chicago, 1995.

Other related reading.

The Buddhist Icon and the Modern Gaze, Critical Inquiry, Vol 24, No 3

Is Buddhism a hobby?

The work week is for work and the weekend is personal time, at least for those of us who are fortunate to still have jobs, yet not so fortunate that it requires working on the weekends too. “Work” here is stuff that involves earning a living. What is personal, though? Most people save time to be with family, meet with friends and family not living with them. 

Where do hobbies fall? I know gyms and fitness programs that have classes scheduled only on weekdays, and maybe a small schedule on Saturday, and nothing on Sunday.   Language classes, art classes, sports classes, music classes – things that don’t need a block of many hours like a long hike – are scheduled on weekday evenings so as not to encroach on the weekend. 

Where does spirituality fit in all of this? Does it belong in personal time or in work/hobby (weekdays). It seems most religions in the US choose the weekend for communal gatherings in addition to daily private practice.  This is true for all faiths including “traditional” Buddhist parisas (assemblies).  But a number of “western” Buddhist circles have gatherings and meditation almost exclusively on the weekdays, meeting every Tuesday evening, Thursday evening, etc.  This despite the fact that the original reason for the weekend was to set it apart for spiritual practice – a tradition from the western world. 

It’s also not common to see  families attending together, which would have made the weekend a natural time for practicing together as a community.  Children at such Dharma gatherings are a rarity and a source of some attention and “awww”s.

All of this leads me to wonder what kind of place meditation and Dharma, that I would normally think of as situated in the personal and the spiritual, is assumed to hold in these communities. Is this considered a hobby?

The power of truth and nonviolence

A good bit of the story of Aṅgulimāla is told in the pāli canon in the Aṅgulimāla Sutta (MN 86). A small part of this sutta, a single verse, is often chanted as a protection.  The Elder Ahiṃsaka (Aṅgulimāla) is something like a patron saint of childbirth.  His story of becoming a bloodthirsty killer and then redeeming himself by becoming a monk and living the holy life is a rich starting point for various explorations – on causes and conditions, the ripening of karma even on one who has attained nibbāna, how one can be set on a destructive path by one’s own teacher, how excellence can engender jealousy, how one can be blinded by fervor of belief or a slavish sense of duty to carry out the most heinous of crimes and turn on even the ones who have been the most loving figures in one’s life, restorative/transformative justice, the power of love/courage and wisdom to subdue what even the most powerful weapons cannot.

In this post, however, I wish to focus narrowly on the immediate context of the paritta. One day, on alms round, the reformed and gentle monk Ahiṃsaka, whose name translates literally to “the non-violent one”, came across a woman undergoing the pain of a breech birth (feet-first birth) and as he was moved by her suffering, the thought arose in him – ‘How afflicted are living beings! How afflicted are living beings!’*

After discussion, the Buddha asked him to go and tell the woman –

Ever since I was born in the noble birth, sister, I don’t recall having intentionally taken the life of a living creature. By this truth, may both you and your baby be safe.

The story goes on to say that the woman and her baby came out of the childbirth safe and well and the birth became easeful.

I write this post to highlight two things about this very short verse.

  • The enormous task of not killing any living creature. One who is really serious about the first precept will find how hard the task actually is. If one expands the meaning of avoiding intentional killing as avoiding activities where one might end up killing a living being (cleaning, walking without being too careful not to crush creatures which could easily have been seen, drowning creatures as collateral damage),  it is a mighty hard task.   This is significantly harder in a rural/wild setting. Not having cruel intentions is not enough.  It requires care and consideration and a lot of continuous mindfulness to keep just this precept that many of us assume is something that we obviously don’t violate. And to not have ever done that is quite an achievement – one that the Buddha considered quite powerful.
  • The respect for the miraculous power of truth in the mythology/allusions of the time/place. There are several stories in various Indian traditions of a truthful statement having actual force to cause an effect in the physical world. In this case, a safe childbirth.  In other instances, people being unaffected by fire because of the truth of some fact or the other.  Not that society at any time or place was/is entirely truthful in practice, I am referring to the power attributed to the ideal in the common reference system of the teacher and the taught. 

Notes:

  1. Apart from being recited to pregnant women, this paritta (chant of protection) is also recited as a matter of routine on Fridays in many countries.
  2. Some chants frame the paritta itself with a description of the protective power of this paritta in this way – even the water used to wash the seat of one who has chanted this paritta can ward off all danger/trouble!
  3. The line here (kilissanti vata bho sattā) would be literally ‘How defiled are living beings!’ and in this context of physical childbirth, perhaps better translated as ‘How tormented are living beings!’, I have chosen ‘afflicted’ as an attempt to bring together these two meanings.
  4. The sentence spoken to the woman concludes with the words “May your fetus be safe” (rather than baby), but I have chosen the word baby here as it accords with our normal way of speaking about something like this.

The image below is of the scene of Ven. Ahiṃsaka making his assertion of non-killing at the site of the childbirth by the great Burmese artist U Ba Kyi. In this conception, the monk makes the statement seated on a platform outside the home of the pregnant woman with the childbirth happening behind the screen. This and the painting at the top of this post of the Buddha’s first encounter with Angulimāla by the same artist are illustrations from The Illustrated History of Buddhism by Ashin Janakābhivaṃsa of Myanmar.

Sources:

  1. Sutta Central for the text: https://suttacentral.net/mn86/pli/ms
  2. “Angulimala Sutta: About Angulimala” (MN 86), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 30 November 2013, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/mn/mn.086.than.html 
  3. A translation of MN 86 by Venerable Sujato https://suttacentral.net/mn86/en/sujato