Wednesday, July 29, 2009

All Things Are Connected

On Sunday I went camping at Pollets Cove with a friend from the Abbey. We built a campfire as evening was setting in, fueled with driftwood and logs from fallen trees. At one point I added a large log to the fire and watched as the flames from the logs below crept up the sides of the new log and it began to burn. After a few minutes, a long-legged spider emerged from somewhere inside the log, panick-stricken, running this way and that, looking for a way to escape from the searing heat of the flames now consuming its home.

My heart swelled with compassion for the spider's dire situation, tinged with a keen sense of responsibility for having put this little creature in its deadly predicament. If the spider died, it would be because of me. Without pausing to think, my body sprang into action. I stood up, reached into the fire, took hold of one of the spider's long legs, and moved it to the grass, where it promptly disappeared. I did not linger over my basic fear and mistrust of spiders, or the fear of getting burned. Seeing what had to be done to preserve the spider's life, and how quickly it had to be done, the action flowed spontaneously. Thought was not involved.

There are, undoubtedly, many people who would find it a little odd to care so very much about a spider, or to look for the spiritual lesson in meeting one under any circumstance, but the opinions of those people are not my concern. More and more, I am simply trying to live my life in a way that aligns with what I understand as very fundamental ethical principles. Foremost among these is to respect the life of all living creatures and to refrain from taking life deliberately, which is the first of the five basic precepts in Buddhism.

One of the results of making a conscious effort to follow any of the Buddhist ethical precepts is that you see, much more clearly, the many small and large ways in which you *don't* follow them, the little ways you break them inadvertently. Trying to follow the precept to refrain from taking life, for example, makes you vividly aware of how connected you are to the lives -- and deaths -- of innumerable sentient beings. A walk in the forest means stepping on countless bugs, most of them never even seen. A drive on the highway brings about the sudden death of a squirrel who runs under your tire (this actually happened while I was driving a few weeks ago). If you eat meat, you become much more aware that it came from a living creature with consciousness and feelings, not altogether different from yourself. (By contrast, if you're a vegetarian, you can't honestly look down on carnivores and pretend that you're blameless -- millions of insects died in agricultural operations to bring you your vegetables.)

The web of life sprawls infinitely in all directions, and at every moment we are profoundly connected to the lives and deaths of countless beings. Through lack of awareness, we never even see most of these connections, but occasionally one of them jumps out at us and we are presented with a choice. I believe that in such moments, how we act has repercussions that stretch further into that vast web than we can possibly fathom.

What is man without the beasts? If all the beasts were gone, man would die from a great loneliness of the spirit. For whatever happens to the beasts, soon happens to man. All things are connected....

The earth does not belong to man; man belongs to the earth. This we know. All things are connected like the blood which unites one family. All things are connected. Whatever befalls the earth befalls the sons of the earth. Man does not weave the web of life; he is but a strand within it. Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself.

-- from a speech attributed to Chief Seattle, 1854

1 comment:

Shane said...

I got in touch with the heart of sadness reading your blog this morning—and the joy of life and being able to help others. I began, somewhat ridiculously, to bawl when I got to the part about the spider jetting out of the burning log, and was moved even more so by your reaction. Guess, I'm a softy (or just another ethical Buddhist). So glad you saved it from the burning flames. You are good man, my friend.