Ahimsa is the Sanskrit word that is typically translated as not-harm. It’s the ethos, a principle as reflected in the First Precept: Honor life, do not kill. That’s pretty straightforward. Complications from corollaries and conditions come into play, and then there’s confusion about what is fairly simple. Honor life, do not kill. Don’t harm. I must admit, there are causes and conditions that all Precepts are subject to, but for me, those causes and conditions have never arisen. Much to my consternation, those causes and conditions may turn out to be as impermanent as everything, but maybe cause and condition won’t cross, and cause a condition I’d rather not encounter.
Right now, at this very moment, I have no intention to do any harm. I’m not doing any harm. I’m assuming that is the case for you as well, that as you are reading this, you are simultaneously not doing any harm. I’ll go out on a limb here, and say that even the most evil, vile, and violent person you can think of (I’ll wait, it’s a long list), that even they were not doing harm twenty four hours a day, seven days a week. They may have incited violent behavior in others, they may even bear responsibility for creating a climate where violence is encouraged and acceptable. But at least while they were asleep, on a micro level, they weren’t intentionally personally doing any harm or acting in a violent manner.
We can see things conceptually, abstractly, macroscopically, even jingoistically, and say that humans, or omnivores, or North Koreans, or Muslims, or Israelis, or Americans, or Evil Empires, are by nature violent. And we can also pontificate about banning guns, deporting immigrants, quarantining the “others” from the rest of us “good” people, but really, that’s nonsense. Even at our collective worst, not everyone is participating in violent actions constantly, no matter what we’ve been told. And past violent acts don’t necessarily mean future acts. Even Angulimala was converted from his serial-killing ways by the Buddha.
Regarding ahimsa, there’s a subtle difference between not doing harm, and not being violent. Violence is a subset of harm. Standing by and watching harm being done is de jure participation in the perpetuation of harm, if not de facto harming. The intention is to stand back, look the other way, talk about the weather a bit, and come up with some excuse cloaked in the costume of reason not to step in. In this case, Inaction is not-Right Action.
You’ve probably all seen some image of a Buddhist monk or layman self-immolating. Some say it’s a totally selfless act, a self-less act, a sacrifice for the greater good. I have to wonder how effective those acts are. Is it the act of a Bodhisattva, or an act of despair? We can’t really ask what the intention was after the fact, the only evaluation is its effectiveness in changing the situation that caused the immolation. Did the monk on fire do anything to change the Vietnam War of the Chinese occupation of Tibet? As of this moment, no...and yes. No, in that those situations are how they are as of this moment, and they can’t be another way than how they are. And yes, because the effects of the immolation have not necessarily be fully borne out, so change may yet come.
Ahimsa doesn’t just apply to those we like, or those close to home, or those with whom we feel some commonality. “Like,” “home,” and “commonality” are nothing more than empty concepts (as if a concept couldn’t be). As Buddhists, we may think we like other Buddhists, because of that commonality. We may at least feel some affinity toward our Buddhist brothers and sisters. Then again, maybe that affinity only applies to those whom we see as “good” Buddhists...not like those 969 guys in Burma who are massacring the Rohynga. For them, we have contempt, feel the righteous indignation that entitles us to criticize those other Buddhists, who must not be actual Buddhists anyway, because they sure aren’t practicing the First Precept particularly well, and besides that, haven’t they even heard of ahimsa? Were they absent that day in Buddhism 101?
And yes, what’s going on in Burma certainly seems horrific, although we’re really only seeing part of whatever story the media would like us to see, as the shock value of a violent Buddhist defies the stereotype. There are somewhere in the vicinity of twenty armed conflicts involving death at this moment. Odds are, someone is dying at the hands of another in armed struggle right now. Throw in acts of violence in non-war situations, the numbers climb. Odds are you’re probably only aware of two or three of these conflicts if that, maybe none of the other violent acts if they didn’t happen nearby, or involve multiple casualties in a school or a parking . Someone is killing someone else right now. Not as an abstract statistical concept, someone is killing someone right at this moment, and at least in twenty geographical instances, because of a nationalistic, jingoistic sense of threat and perceived superiority or perceived weakness. Mao said that one death is a tragedy, a million is a statistic. Right now, tragedy. Now. And now. All deaths are one death.
A Bodhisattva doesn’t check what flag someone waving before s/he decides whether the save that particular being. To lean into the Absolute if I may, nations, religions, weakness, strength, and all the rest are just empty stories we convince ourselves to believe. “All beings” doesn’t discriminate between one being and another. There are no Kurds and Turks, or Kurds and Iraqis, or Kurds and any number of Syrian combatants. There are no “sides” in Syria, or Burma, or Burundi. There is a person with a weapon killing another person (who may also have a weapon) right now. One on one, one on many, face to face or anonymously, somebody is seeing the “other,” and thinking that it is correct action to kill them.
I can’t decide what correct action is for anyone other than myself. I practice ahimsa as best I can, from moment to moment. I can only hope that you as an individual will also see the wisdom the Buddha pointed to in his teachings of not doing harm. Perhaps if enough people start practicing ahimsa individually, then the stories about self/other, same/different, will be seen as nothing more than stories, as empty as everything else. Compassion fatigue may set in because of the sheer number of violent situations. But only if you look at concepts like flags and countries and religions and everything else that creates the story that separates one from another. But right now, someone believes the story, and is pulling the trigger. Right now...