“Having abandoned the taking of life, refraining from the taking of life, we dwell without violence, with the knife laid down —scrupulous, full of mercy— trembling with compassion for all sentient beings.” ―Buddha Shakyamuni
When people think of Buddhist monks, if they think of us at all, they imagine that we dwell in clouds of incense, smiling serenely, unperturbed, meditating on nothing. But, as you just read, we are not called to drift placidly in emptiness, but to “tremble with compassion for all sentient beings”.
I thought that the mention of ‘trembling’ was just a rhetorical device, until late one night, returning with my Teacher from visiting with refugees, when we passed by a dark alley and heard the cries of fear and pain of a youth who was being beaten by a group of men.
Without hesitation, my Teacher approached the men, and smiling broadly, asked them if it would not be much more ‘fun’ to beat up two Buddhist monks instead of one young man. I was not smiling broadly. I was not smiling at all. You see, Buddhist monks vow not to resort to violence, even to defend ourselves. We do not fight. We were going to get pummeled.
Surprisingly, the beating stopped, the men laughed nervously, uttered some choice profanities, and left. Perhaps they imagined we were Shaolin monks, ready to rain our secret Kung Fu moves on them…
After making sure that the young man was safe and in the care of emergency responders, I asked my Teacher if he had known that we would not come to harm. He responded that he did not, but at the very least, we could have taken some of the blows, and not all would have fallen on that one young man. And then he told me soberly that it was our duty, when confronted with suffering, to get in the way, to stand between those who would do harm and those who would be hurt.
I am here tonight not to speak in lofty platitudes, but to get in the way. Not all abuse happens in dark alleys. Much unspeakable cruelty takes place in the brightly lit aisles where we purchase the flesh of animals, their eggs, their milk, their skin, their wool, their feathers, and their fur. Those brightly lit aisles conceal the horrible darkness where animals are confined, enslaved, tortured, and slaughtered for our pleasure. I will not share with you the gory details, but the awful truth is there for you to see, as plain as day.
What makes some beings worthy of compassion, while others seem to merit only our disdain? Is it intelligence? Is it the ability to speak? Is it the actions we perform? No. Are we not called to feel compassion for the dull, the dumb, the infirm, and the disabled? Beings are worthy of compassion because they are sentient —they suffer, they feel pain.
To desire only to reduce the suffering of human beings is nothing but extended selfishness. Are we not called by all the Holy Ones, the Prophets, and the Teachers of all faiths to care for all, even for the least among us? Did Jesus Christ not say: “Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me”?
I come to you not to judge you, but to implore you to look upon ALL our fellow sentient beings, human and non-human, with compassion. If we cannot prevent the cruelty they suffer, at least let harm not be inflicted for our pleasure, paid with our money, and executed in our name.
We cannot speak sincerely of compassion while confining, abusing, and slaughtering our fellow sentient beings. Compassion begins in our shopping carts, in our closets, in our kitchens, on our plates.
If I have made you uncomfortable, I apologize. I am not here to fight, but to get in the way. I humbly stand before you, as the Buddha instructed, trembling with compassion –for you and for all beings. May all attain the union of wisdom and compassion!
om mani peme hum