Question & Answer With A Buddhist Nun
My student, L., sent this question a few years ago.
The other day I was driving with a friend and her two year old and infant in the car. A chipmunk ran across the road. I could not swerve or slam on the brakes for fear of hurting the children, so I hit it and killed it. I felt so badly. My friend tried to comfort me by reminding me of natural selection, but guilt still lingers in my mind.
I know you have a very tender heart. Don’t worry about the chipmunk. Accidents are no reason for guilt. You know for yourself whether or not you were being mindful; and if you were, for what can you feel remorse?
Since the chipmunk has the unusual good karma to come to the attention of a Buddhist practitioner, do good deeds and share merits with him or her, or share the already-accumulated merits of your life, and wish that by the power of the merits of the Buddha and by the power of the merits that you share, may it attain Nibbana before the end of this Buddha-dispensation.
Remind yourself that the little guy (or gal) was at the wrong place at the wrong time, and that was its karma. The accident was as impersonal and lacking of blame as an elephant stepping on a cricket.
It was a great way to die. All beings must die, remember? Some ways are truly horrific. A quick smack from the tires of a fast-moving car is just about as quick and easy as it gets. Wish him well, wish him a good new life.
Remember, lingering remorse is an unwholesome mental state. Don’t indulge in it.
*** That is what I wrote back then to soothe her. Revisiting the question now, I would like to address the discomfort that L. felt due to having chosen the children’s safety over the chipmunk’s life.
Imagine if L. were transporting a few chipmunks (without human passengers) when a child suddenly runs across the road. Wouldn’t L. brake, swerve, skid, and make every effort to spare the child from certain death on the road, regardless of risk to herself and her rodent passengers? If at all possible, she would try to keep everyone safe.
Our friend L. likely could have made an effort to spare the chipmunk without bringing disaster if she had valued the creature highly enough, and as a sensitive person aware of the value of all life, she probably would have tried it, if there had not been children in her car. The presence of the kids changed her priorities. A normal caring adult cannot even take a small risk of harm to a child, even if it means certainly crushing a small wild animal to keep the child completely safe.
Buddhism teaches us that a sentient being’s moment-to-moment experience of living, and his or her attachment to continued life, have the same bases among all creatures. Animals and humans share the same mind/body building blocks.
The more deeply we understand this truth, the more we must acknowledge the equal value shared by every being. And yet we cannot treat people and other sentient beings equally, unless somehow freed of all social sensitivity (through perfect enlightenment or gross psychosis), for usually our hearts rebel most strongly against harmful consequences to our fellow humans. That is our nature. It’s an attachment, but I believe it to be a necessary one along the spiritual path. Even enlightened ones must act with compassionate awareness of the trauma that fellow humans would feel if not given special consideration.
The disconnect between these ideals — valuing all life yet also holding a special allegiance to humans — brings sharp discomfort when the ideals conflict. Hence L.’s unease over her split-second decision continued long afterwards. The deeper our compassion towards all beings, the sharper the discomfort… Unless our understanding and compassion for all beings is so perfect as to overcome all distinctions. In that case, one’s actions may be the same (due to compassion), but without the underlying attachment and delusion that one or the other can be more worthy.
L’s situation calls for redirecting compassion towards herself, by reflecting: “This is what it is like to be caught up in Samsara.* It isn’t comfortable. It isn’t supposed to be. May I find freedom from all these conundrums and difficulties, and pass beyond all pain forever!”
*Samsara = the endless rounds of rebirths, here meaning particularly the pains that accompany impermanence and lack of control.
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