The ethics of minimizing suffering and being a "good person"

Buddhist ethical conduct including the Five Precepts (Pañcasikkhāpada), and Eightfold Ethical Conduct (Aṭṭhasīla).
Thrylix
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The ethics of minimizing suffering and being a "good person"

Post by Thrylix » Tue Apr 26, 2011 9:01 pm

By most people's standards, I'm a pretty well-rounded, normal 24 year old guy. I'm considered nice, polite, and I'm well-liked. By the standards of most Americans, I'm a good guy.

But an event this weekend got me thinking. I was at a state park playing a tennis match with a friend. After the game, I had lunch and went to the garbage pale to throw something out and I noticed a bustling anthill amidst the grass. Habitually, I planted my foot on top of the structure in order to flatten their little home and then stamped my feet on many of the nearby ants. Enough that I later had to take a stick and grind away at the bottoms of my running sneakers to scrape out the layer of little ant bodies and mud that had gotten gunked deep between the treads.

As someone who is interested in the ethics of killing and dhamma from a theological standpoint (I am not spiritual), what would be the implications of this dynamic? How could one be a good person while also causing death?

How is the karmic debt I've built weighed? I like most animals, I have a dog, I even like insects. According to dhamma, would I be reborn in the hell realms and then be reborn as an ant as many times as there are ants that I've crushed? I've stepped on a lot of bugs over the years, a good number of them on purpose. But what about my good acts in society and toward other people? Are those counted for less?

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daverupa
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Re: The ethics of minimizing suffering and being a "good person"

Post by daverupa » Tue Apr 26, 2011 9:14 pm

Thrylix wrote:As someone who is interested in the ethics of killing and dhamma from a theological standpoint (I am not spiritual)
I don't know what you mean by this distinction. Do certain answers apply, and certain other answers not, based on your interpretation of whether those answers are spiritually or theologically laden? Clarifying this point will be important since the Dhamma is a living practice, neither spiritual nor theological.
  • "And how is it, bhikkhus, that by protecting oneself one protects others? By the pursuit, development, and cultivation of the four establishments of mindfulness. It is in such a way that by protecting oneself one protects others.

    "And how is it, bhikkhus, that by protecting others one protects oneself? By patience, harmlessness, goodwill, and sympathy. It is in such a way that by protecting others one protects oneself.

- Sedaka Sutta [SN 47.19]

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Khalil Bodhi
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Re: The ethics of minimizing suffering and being a "good person"

Post by Khalil Bodhi » Tue Apr 26, 2011 9:28 pm

Also, as a nit-picky aside, the Dhamma can't be studied theologically since it's all logos and no theos...

Metta,

Mike
To avoid all evil, to cultivate good, and to cleanse one's mind — this is the teaching of the Buddhas.
-Dhp. 183

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Thrylix
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Re: The ethics of minimizing suffering and being a "good person"

Post by Thrylix » Tue Apr 26, 2011 9:39 pm

What about in the context of karma as you know it?

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daverupa
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Re: The ethics of minimizing suffering and being a "good person"

Post by daverupa » Tue Apr 26, 2011 9:53 pm

Kamma is intention. Your intention, then, was to cause the destruction of life (however habitual the urge vis-a-vis ants). The act was therefore a breach of the first precept, and therefore unwholesome, leading on to further suffering and not to the cessation of suffering.

It is important to note that this does not make you a bad person, and you wouldn't be a good person if you had abstained. There can be no good or bad person, simply wholesome and unwholesome actions of body, speech, and mind. This case of ants is an example of unwholesome bodily action.
  • "And how is it, bhikkhus, that by protecting oneself one protects others? By the pursuit, development, and cultivation of the four establishments of mindfulness. It is in such a way that by protecting oneself one protects others.

    "And how is it, bhikkhus, that by protecting others one protects oneself? By patience, harmlessness, goodwill, and sympathy. It is in such a way that by protecting others one protects oneself.

- Sedaka Sutta [SN 47.19]

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Kim OHara
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Re: The ethics of minimizing suffering and being a "good person"

Post by Kim OHara » Tue Apr 26, 2011 10:09 pm

daverupa wrote:Kamma is intention. Your intention, then, was to cause the destruction of life (however habitual the urge vis-a-vis ants). The act was therefore a breach of the first precept, and therefore unwholesome, leading on to further suffering and not to the cessation of suffering.

It is important to note that this does not make you a bad person, and you wouldn't be a good person if you had abstained. There can be no good or bad person, simply wholesome and unwholesome actions of body, speech, and mind. This case of ants is an example of unwholesome bodily action.
Just an addition to a response that I agree with:
It is better to avoid such actions (harming other living creatures) and the way to do it is mindfulness. Think before you act - "Is this a good thing to do?"
Sometimes it will be necessary to harm, even kill, other creatures (e.g. killing a snake may be the only way of protecting children nearby) but we should generally aim to avoid causing unnecessary harm.
After a period of thinking about your actions every time you come across insects, your habitual response will no doubt change - you will 'automatically' leave them be instead of 'automatically' stomping them - but mindfulness is the essential first step in that direction. That's true of all of our bad (unwholesome, unskillful) habits, actually.
:namaste:
Kim

Edit: fixed typo.
Last edited by Kim OHara on Tue Apr 26, 2011 10:42 pm, edited 1 time in total.

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Dan74
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Re: The ethics of minimizing suffering and being a "good person"

Post by Dan74 » Tue Apr 26, 2011 10:26 pm

I wouldn't rush to foretell millions of future rebirths as an ant. At the same time it seems that we usually learn compassion from experiencing deep suffering ourselves. So in that sense there may be some lessons in store for you. Kamma is not punishment, it's a natural consequence of your action. And a natural consequence of an action lacking in compassion is suffering.

Worldly notions like "a good person" is often more to do with a reasonably well-adjusted likeable person, rather than actual moral virtue. I wouldn't worry too much about being considered "a good person" but rather take a good honest look at how you live. Being liked and respected by truly wise and good people counts for something, but most of us don't have much of a clue and you regularly hear stories of neighbours of a convicted serial killer saying what a nice guy he was because we would say "Good Morning!" and took his garbage bins out on time.

In my case, having kids has really brought issues like killing little creatures and animals to the fore. I realized I cannot honestly justify it. So we take insects outside and avoid eating meat. I recall out eldest when he was barely 3 burst into tears when I swatted a mosquito in his bedroom before turning the lights out. He reminded me of it for months to come and made me promise time and time again that this would never happen.

I guess we come into this world with different sensitivity and compassion for different things. But whatever it is, it's good to identify those moral blind spots and work on them.

Good luck on your journey!
_/|\_

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SDC
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Re: The ethics of minimizing suffering and being a "good person"

Post by SDC » Tue Apr 26, 2011 10:53 pm

Thrylix wrote:What about in the context of karma as you know it?
You may get something good out of this lecture by Venerable Madawela Punnaji.

http://www.buddhistelibrary.org/en/disp ... play_media

The book he talks about that he can not remember the name of is "As a Man Thinketh" by James Allen.

Thrylix
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Re: The ethics of minimizing suffering and being a "good person"

Post by Thrylix » Tue Apr 26, 2011 11:00 pm

Even throughout college, I stomped on ants and other bugs without a thought. I still basically do it without even thinking about it. It was after that tennis match when I was scraping them off with a stick that I kind of thought about it from their perspective. I couldn't imagine the indignity of going on with your own self-actualized life, and then the next thing you know, some huge giant appears from out of nowhere and for no real reason except to satisfy some egotistical urge, lifts up his foot and purposely smothers you, your home, and your extended family beneath it. The next thing you know, you and your family are specks on the bottom of his muddy, smelly sneakers as he walks away to continue on with his self-absorbed recreational day of fun and games. It was kind of an interesting exercise in imagination was all.

I don't feel ashamed because I know that I'm a pretty good person. I make friends easily and people find me very likeable, because I know I'm nice. And I'm always happy to do favors for other people. But it's probably because I don't feel ashamed/concerned about the lives of ants that I don't really see a problem with stepping on them if I feel like it.

Your replies all are very interesting, by the way.
Worldly notions like "a good person" is often more to do with a reasonably well-adjusted likeable person, rather than actual moral virtue. I wouldn't worry too much about being considered "a good person" but rather take a good honest look at how you live. Being liked and respected by truly wise and good people counts for something, but most of us don't have much of a clue and you regularly hear stories of neighbours of a convicted serial killer saying what a nice guy he was because we would say "Good Morning!" and took his garbage bins out on time.
Very true. Some people can be very deviant even while pretending to be normal. However, I do mostly good acts. I know I do. I'm just wondering how weighty the habitual act of destroying life is while still performing mostly good acts.

Justsit
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Re: The ethics of minimizing suffering and being a "good person"

Post by Justsit » Tue Apr 26, 2011 11:26 pm

Thrylix wrote:... habitual act of destroying life...
Nasty habit. Might be one to break if you are considering karmic consequences.
Planting seeds and all that, you know...

Thrylix
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Re: The ethics of minimizing suffering and being a "good person"

Post by Thrylix » Tue Apr 26, 2011 11:38 pm

Justsit wrote:
Thrylix wrote:... habitual act of destroying life...
Nasty habit. Might be one to break if you are considering karmic consequences.
Planting seeds and all that, you know...
Doesn't the motive behind the act matter in this context? If I did it because I wanted to cause pain, that's one thing. But to do it "just 'cause," which is why I do it, well, that seems like another thing entirely. Has that any bearing on karmic consequences?

Do you have a theory of your own about why someone like me casually steps on ants? I could use more insight into it myself, because I never thought about why I do it it until recently.

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beeblebrox
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Re: The ethics of minimizing suffering and being a "good person"

Post by beeblebrox » Tue Apr 26, 2011 11:53 pm

Thrylix wrote:
Justsit wrote:
Thrylix wrote:... habitual act of destroying life...
Nasty habit. Might be one to break if you are considering karmic consequences.
Planting seeds and all that, you know...
Doesn't the motive behind the act matter in this context? If I did it because I wanted to cause pain, that's one thing. But to do it "just 'cause," which is why I do it, well, that seems like another thing entirely. Has that any bearing on karmic consequences?
What is the motivation here in this thread, really? That might be something for you to think about. Just be honest with yourself... you really don't have to make up an answer. Delusion is one of the three poisons.

:anjali:

ricketybridge
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Re: The ethics of minimizing suffering and being a "good person"

Post by ricketybridge » Wed Apr 27, 2011 12:08 am

I dunno, I think doing it "just 'cause" shows a lack of compassion. I'd be curious how you guys would deal (or have dealt) with something like a termite infestation... I guess a householder should call an exterminator, right? So as to take care of his assets/family and all, but what about a Buddhist monastery? Do they just let the monastery crumble to the ground?

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beeblebrox
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Re: The ethics of minimizing suffering and being a "good person"

Post by beeblebrox » Wed Apr 27, 2011 12:43 am

ricketybridge wrote:I dunno, I think doing it "just 'cause" shows a lack of compassion. I'd be curious how you guys would deal (or have dealt) with something like a termite infestation... I guess a householder should call an exterminator, right? So as to take care of his assets/family and all, but what about a Buddhist monastery? Do they just let the monastery crumble to the ground?
If it's necessary, then just do it... and view it as killing. Don't try to rationalize it as something that is OK (deluding yourself). If it's not necessary, then don't kill. If something was killed by accident, then view that as something that got killed. Don't just shrug it off, and say that it wasn't your intention... just to make yourself feel better (deluding yourself, again).

:anjali:

Thrylix
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Re: The ethics of minimizing suffering and being a "good person"

Post by Thrylix » Wed Apr 27, 2011 12:48 am

beeblebrox wrote: What is the motivation here in this thread, really? That might be something for you to think about. Just be honest with yourself... you really don't have to make up an answer. Delusion is one of the three poisons.

:anjali:
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