Laws of Intended Consequences

[estimated reading time 4 minutes]

I hear a lot of people speak about being at peace with your life lately. That’s a very important thing to do. It’s often people who have just discovered Buddhist teachings. Sadly, many of these people think of it as a religion rather than what it really is, a set of teachings on how to have a better life in harmony with the world. It’s not about worship or reverence or prayer — those things are definitely the domain of religion. It’s about intention and outcome and walking a pathway from where you are in this moment to where you should be in the next. Making decisions from a place of acceptance.

But that’s where the danger comes in, too. Some people find accepting the world around them extremely hard. Those are the people for who the teaching of acceptance is extremely difficult but just as important as how hard it is to conceptualize. If you can’t accept your current situation, there is no way you can find peace in it. Without peace, all change will be for the worse. Accepting where you are as a starting point makes positive change possible.

More dangerously though is accepting where you are as a destination rather than a starting point. It is important to make where you are today better than where you were yesterday. Being a better person in this moment is vital for progress. And you should certainly be happy and thankful for the fact that you have done that. But being satisfied isn’t useful. You are never perfect. Never good enough. Good, yes. Worth loving and caring for, especially when you’re loving yourself, absolutely. But never enough. No human is. We can always be better. And the day we give up making ourselves better, every day, every choice we make, that’s when we might as well give up and die. Because not trying to be better means we’ve given up on humanity.

So where does this meet intention? Many places but the one that comes up all the time is about death. Killing. Slaughtering living beings. There is an absolute prohibition on causing death in the precepts. I would suggest that this is indeed the foundation for all Buddhist teachings — life, all life, is interconnected and to cause harm of any sort, not just death, is to hurt all life, including yourself and those you love.

But, of course, death is a natural part of existence. If I build a house, I am certain to cause harm to insects living in the ground. If I grow vegetables, there will be worms and ants and spiders, also quite possibly larger beings harmed in that process. If I have a window in my home, a bird is likely to eventually fly into it and be hurt. If I have a garbage box, a cat may climb into it and become stuck, dying of suffocation or simply starving to death trapped in the box. These are possibly avoidable but not with any reasonable degree of certainty. We are humans, after all. Our lives are lived on human scales. That means that sometimes we will dig a hole in the ground and crush a worm. Sometimes we will step on a spider on the ground. I don’t mean we are intentionally crushing every bug we see. I mean these things happen. Nobody, least of all a serious Buddhist teacher, even the Buddha himself, is going to tell you that you’re a bad person for these accidental harms caused.

Causing harm is necessary for life, to ourselves and to others. But the point of the teachings is to know the difference between accidental harm and intentional harm. To eliminate intentional harm and minimize accidental harm. So I try to avoid driving over an animal on the road. I buy an electric car and charge it as often as I can from the solar on my roof. I buy locally grown vegetables when I can rather than causing them to be transported large distances. Of course, it’s unreasonable to expect that we can eliminate all sources of harm from our lives. We are duty-bound to do as much as we can. We are not condemned to spend our lives desperately wishing we could do more. Making ourselves miserable is not part of the deal. We do as much as is reasonably possible.

That’s accidental harm. If I hit a badger on the road, it happens. I tried to avoid it. I wasn’t driving too fast, nor was I driving without looking. I didn’t try to hit it. I didn’t drive for the purpose of hitting it. I will certainly cry. I will recite verses for it. But my life will not become all about the death of the badger. I am sad and I am sorry. But causing its death was not my intent and I have to live with that. It will become less troubling in time. (No badgers were actually harmed in the writing of this article.)

But then there are people who cause death by design. They ensure that harm is perpetrated for their pleasure. They cause animals to be hurt, often killed to provide food for them. They not only cause this death but take the products of that harm and put them inside their own bodies. This is not accidental, nor is it cultural. This is simply causing harm to life, causing death. There is no excuse for this behavior. We know better.

So it is vastly important to remember that not every insect we happen to accidentally cause harm is the source of our karmic destruction. And it is just as vital to remember that those things that we cause to happen, such as the pain and death of living beings, are our fault and that we must take responsibility for these actions, if we are aware of them happening, if we benefit from them.

The teachings are in many ways highly subtle and complex. This one is not. It is quite simple and straightforward. Cause no harm intentionally — intend to cause as little harm as possible. If you intent to cause harm, you no longer are following the path. There truly are moral absolutes. There are not many. But here is the most basic. If you cause harm, cause death, cause suffering, you are wrong. Stop doing that. Now. The perhaps you can find the peace you seek. But never before.

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thank you for reading. your eyes have done me a great honor today.