“Life is precious, so I am determined to protect life—not only the lives of human beings but the lives of other species.” —Thich Nhat Hanh
The bus was about to depart Libourne one August afternoon when a passenger noticed a wasp inside, crawling at the top of a window. The passenger alerted us all to the wasp and then alerted the driver. Another passenger stood and demanded the driver open the door, not to free the wasp, but so that she, the passenger, could get off the bus. She refused to be on a bus with a wasp.
There seems to be a fear of wasps in France, perhaps because of stories in the newspapers about a few people who have died from allergic reactions to stings by the invasive Asian hornet. The invasive Asian hornet’s sting is no worse than the native European hornet’s sting, but perhaps seems doubly invasive.
I’m allergic myself, so I remember from childhood the fear of stinging insects, from before I learned that bees and wasps would really rather not sting us at all. As with most animals, danger is avoidable with respect.
Regardless of its lineage, this particular wasp presented no danger that I could see. It did not want to be in the bus. It showed no interest in the passengers. It was at the top of the window looking for a way out. There may have been a lot of dangerous animals on that bus, but the wasp was not one of them.
Nonetheless, the driver attacked, first trying to crush the wasp with a roll of paper towels. The wasp fled into a crevice between the window and the drapes.
I thought I should do something to capture the wasp and free it outside. With a cup I could have caught it when it was on the window, but now that it was hidden that would be more difficult. Nor did I have a cup. Perhaps I should have asked if anyone else had a cup. But the bus was already late. Certainly people would object if I suggested we capture the wasp.
So I did nothing.
The driver unsheathed a ballpoint pen and attacked again, stabbing at the wasp where it hid. It fell to the floor, either killed or seriously wounded. The bus proceeded toward Sainte Foy La Grande.
The passenger who reported the wasp seemed satisfied with herself for resolving this perceived threat. The passenger who had demanded to get off the bus returned to her seat.
I regretted that I had done nothing to save the wasp, that I had allowed it to be killed.
But it was only one wasp on one bus on one day, right? Another dead bug, no big deal?
That seems true until we consider the human multiple: there are 7.7 billion humans on earth, most of whom share the attitude that we can kill for our convenience. So take this attitude, multiply it by 7.7 billion, acculturate and industrialize it.
Then it’s easier to understand why 40 percent of insect species are in decline, including those that provide the invaluable service of pollinating our crops.
It’s easier to understand how humans have eliminated 83 percent of wild mammals on earth and half of plants. How only 4 percent of the world’s mammals are wild. How extinction has reached unprecedented rates for this age, with a million species threatened.
We can only address the ecological crisis we’ve created if we transform our relationship to the rest of the natural world. We can only prevent the suffering looming for all species, including our own, if we stop killing for convenience.
In thoughts like these, the wasp haunted my days at Plum Village’s New Hamlet, one of the monasteries in the Dordogne Valley founded by the Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh.
Many of the people on that bus were also going to Plum Village, a place devoted to peace, including the woman who raised the alarm about the wasp. In the early days there I would pass her on the path, near the Lotus Pond or the Meditation Hall, and I would think, with chagrin and indignation, “There’s that wasp killer!”
One might expect that people going to Plum Village would already know not to kill—Buddhism’s first precept.
How would Thich Nhat Hanh regard the wasp? It’s not difficult to imagine, for he is the teacher who said:
People usually consider walking on water or in thin air a miracle. But I think the real miracle is not to walk either on water or in thin air, but to walk on earth. Every day we are engaged in a miracle which we don’t even recognize: a blue sky, white clouds, green leaves, the black, curious eyes of a child—our own two eyes. All is a miracle.
For those who don’t like the word miracle, certainly one wasp is a brilliant culmination of 3.7 billion years of evolution, the earth’s natural intelligence. To snuff out its life is a triumph of ignorance.
But my indignation was tempered by the persistent feeling that indignation itself was incongruous with the peace cultivated at Plum Village.
A few days later, we would hear Thay’s elaboration on the first precept, what he calls The First Mindfulness Training, Reverence for Life:
Aware of the suffering caused by the destruction of life, I am committed to cultivating the insight of interbeing and compassion and learning ways to protect the lives of people, animals, plants, and minerals. I am determined not to kill, not to let others kill, and not to support any act of killing in the world, in my thinking, or in my way of life.
Notice it is not enough to not kill, we must also prevent others from killing.
My own experience—failing to speak up for the wasp—taught me that reverence for life takes courage, the courage to stand up to convention, to culture, to industry. To stand against the norm and say, let life live.
This should not be a radical act.
But it is. And it also has to be a mindful act. The First Mindfulness Training has a second paragraph:
Seeing that harmful actions arise from anger, fear, greed, and intolerance, which in turn come from dualistic and discriminative thinking, I will cultivate openness, non-discrimination, and non-attachment to views in order to transform violence, fanaticism, and dogmatism in myself and in the world.
At Plum Village that August, the teaching on the First Mindfulness Training came from Fatima Tamayo, a Spanish psychologist whose commitment to the practice has inspired her to develop demonstration projects on sustainable living.
Tamayo reminded us that even as we oppose killing, we must aspire to tolerance, openness, and non-attachment to views. She advised us to realize that often those who kill also believe they are doing the right thing.
On the bus, those who killed the wasp doubtless believed they were protecting themselves and their fellow passengers.
It was only I who had failed to protect.
The needless death of one wasp may have been incremental, but it was an increment advancing a cumulative tragedy: killing has become routine.
Perhaps over tens of thousands of years humans developed an indifference to life that facilitated our survival—much as fire facilitated our survival. For tens of thousands of years we needed fire for cooking, for heat, for energy. But where there’s fire, there’s smoke. The consequences of using fire, compounded by the human multiple, have now compelled us to find cleaner ways to cook, to heat, to make energy.
Likewise, the days are gone in which our survival depended on routine killing. We’re entering a new day in which, to survive, we must have the courage to revere.
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