Ahimsa: Non-Violence Towards Living Beings

I was first introduced to non-violence towards living beings in my first 100 hours of yoga teacher training. It was suggested that being violent to living things could cause more violence or slowly create hate and resentment in one’s heart. I was taught that Buddhists refrain from eating meat because it was a pure form of non-violence, and an example of how we could make a personal commitment to respect life. We weren’t told that if we kept eating meat we would become man-hating zombies; but if we wanted a clean slate, a soft heart, and be able to have a better life overall – physically, mentally, and spiritually - then we should adjust and not abuse anything with a heartbeat for our own satisfaction. The ultimate goal for a Buddhist to practice non-violence was to have compassion and understanding for all living things. A small example would be getting a purse made from plant fibers instead of getting an authentic leather purse from a cow’s butt.

After my teacher training I was a vegetarian for 4 years, eventually the smell of meat was discouraging and would make me nauseous. Meat honestly smelled like dead flesh. Eventually I brought meat back into my life, and I noticed that I was quicker to judge, a little impatient, and eager to rationalize certain thoughts or behaviors. I also noticed my yoga practice was slow and sluggish; it was difficult to not only make certain shapes but to maintain them as well.  I started to wonder if using animals was hardening my heart and clogging my body.

But does being non-violent really mean to stop killing? Or does it mean to have more ­compassion and unconditional love. Is there a chance that if one person treats one human with kindness, that the care will spread? From what I have seen, when someone has compassion or unconditional love; letting go of hate becomes more natural. When you let go of hate, in turn there will be less violence.

The famously quoted and well noted Gandhi thought of nonviolence as a ‘positive sense of love’. All while the definition of unconditional love is to love without conditions or limitations. He also believed that nonviolence was not just about abstaining from killing or war; or being passive towards violence. He firmly believed that forgiveness is much more rewarding than punishment, and to love the wrong doers, but not the wrong. This reminded me of the prophet Jesus, and a common saying associated within Christianity “Love the sinner, but not the sin”.

As a child I went to religious schools from kindergardten to highschool, so I feel reasonably well versed with the Bible. My least favorite stories (but recently has hit my heart with a soft arrow) of the Bible involved two brothers that split their fathers’ estate in the book of Luke. The story goes that the youngest of the two brothers thought it was time that their father’s estate was spilt amongst them both. The eldest stayed and worked on the farm with their father, while the youngest son traveled and ‘sinfully’ spent his riches on gambling, food, and women. After a while the youngest son became hungry, and decided to go back home. Willing to admit defeat to his father that he was a sinner, and unworthy to be called his son. When the son came home, the father rejoiced “this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and now is found!”. The family had a grand feast and celebrated, but the eldest brother was not so pleased. For he had worked beside his father the whole time and never got so much as a ‘thank you’. The eldest son explained his frustrations and the father said, “you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again...”

This particular Bible story frustrated me for years! I legit remember thinking, ‘That is a terrible father. Who does he think he is’? Hearing this preposterous story at the age of six in bible class, I thought it was ridiculous that the eldest son wasn’t rewarded for ‘doing good’ the entire time. It was absurd that your just supposed to do good and not get a pat on the back every now and then. It honestly bewildered me this father would allow someone back into his families’ lives that took advantage of their income. As I grew up, my home that was corrupted from my stepfather stealing over $30,000 from my family over the span of 9 years. As well as another relatives spending roughly $800,000 of our families’ inheritance on rehabilitation centers, halfway houses, and lawyers (and the unfortunate addictions themselves) over the course of 12 years.

I always told myself that these family members were so selfish; they have no soul, why should we help them. I certainly had no security in thinking that they would help me if it came to it. But the real truth is that they hurt themselves so much more than myself or any other family member could ever do as punishment. A Buddhist quote that hit home for me while studying Ahimsa, “Holding onto anger is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.” Those words spoke very clearly to me after 20 years of resentment. At the end of the day there was nothing I could fix for those that hurt me, all I could have done was not be afraid and give them a listening ear.

In Gandhi’s eyes, there is no place to hide or to be a coward, because in the end fear creates violence and misunderstanding. Nonviolence is the personal practice of being harmless to the self and others under every condition. We should not be intimidated by the mighty roar of violence, because it is our jobs as warriors of non-violence to stand strong and still with an unwavering heart. Christian and Buddhist alike, one principle is the same; unconditional love will heal a hardened heart.