“SO YOU’RE THE INFAMOUS David Barnhill,” he said, acknowledging my peculiar reputation. We were standing outside the dharma hall of Zen Mountain Center near Los Angeles. It was an odd way to begin a sesshin, a week-long meditation retreat.

The comment seemed stranger still because within a few hours I would be inside the incense-filled hall undergoing jukai, “receiving the precepts” from the Japanese Zen abbot Maezumi Roshi and thus becoming an official lay Buddhist. It was, after all, the first of those precepts—”Do not kill”—that was the occasion for my dubious renown.

It all began when I published an article on the poet Gary Snyder in The Ten Directions, the journal of the Zen Center of Los Angeles. In it I analyzed the way he had adapted the image of Indra’s Net, the central teachings of Hua-yen Buddhism, to his own thought and practice. According to the Hua-yen school, the universe is made not of discrete “things” as much as knots, or nodes of interrelationship in the endless web of life. Snyder applies this traditional teaching to the scientific view of ecological interdependence: Indra’s Net is made of plants and animals tied intimately together within the ecosphere. With this perspective, Snyder has replaced the conventional image of nature’s amoral, embattled survival of the fittest with an image of the food web as sacred gift-exchange: “If we eat each other, is it not a giant act of love we live within?”


Cave paintings, Remigia, Spain. © Mazonowicz/Art Resource, NY.

Snyder has emphasized our place in this gift exchange: “Just where am I in the food chain?” he asked in an early journal. In responding to what is for him a religious question, Snyder has turned to the Native American practice of hunting. In his view, Indian hunting embodies precise knowledge of nature’s web, trancelike unity with animal consciousness, and pointed mindfulness during the hunt, and it involves rituals expressing humility, gratitude, and reverence for animals who, according to Indian belief, offer themselves to those who are worthy.

Letters expressing sharp criticism soon appeared in The Ten Directions, and I found myself in the middle of a storm. They posited that the views in the article contradicted not only the first precept but also the Bodhisattva Vow: “Is the Bodhisattva Vow to liberate all sentient beings achieved through killing those same beings?” Not merely hunting, but any form of meat-eating was condemned, as it was by Emerson: “However scrupulously the slaughterhouse is concealed in a graceful distance of miles, there is complicity.” For one reader, the views in my article on Snyder were “appalling”; for another, they “gave me the creeps.” It was not a reaction I had expected. Nor had Snyder, who wrote a reply which was published along with the letters.

All this made my psychological preparation for the jukai ceremony more of a challenge, but also perhaps more thoughtful. I realized that taking the precepts involved questions and issues that could not be resolved easily. I opened the door to the hall and gazed in. I also thought about why the article had led to such stinging responses.

Clearly it had struck some kind of a chord in American Buddhism, or perhaps exposed some discord. On the most general level, the reaction indicated a serious concern with morality in dharma studies. But Snyder’s writings have long been saturated with moral concern, so why these denunciations? In part, I think that some readers had simply failed to see the issue of hunting and meat-eating in the context of his ideas. One context is Native American practices and attitudes. It was these that Snyder praises, rather than hunting and meat-eating per se. (The letters seemed to neglect the distinction between hunting-and-gathering ritual and big-game trophy safaris.) Yet some readers condemned meat-eating by pointing to American consumerism: slaughterhouses and plastic-wrapped beef prepared not as a celebration of life but as luxuries for the palate. When Snyder praises hunting he is talking about a highly ritualized form, based on necessity, discipline, gratitude, and humility. Yet he is hardly a defender of meat-eating:


Up on the bluff, the steak houses
called “The Embers”—called
with a smiling disney cow on the sign
or a stockman’s pride—huge
full-color photo of standing Hereford stud
above the very booth
his bloody sliced muscle is
served in;

The Chamber of Commerce eats there,
the visiting lecturer,
stockmen in Denver suits,
Japanese-American animal nutrition experts
from Kansas,
with Buddhist beads;

And down by the tracks
in frozen mud, in feed lots,
fed surplus grain
(the ripped-off land)
the beeves are standing round
bred heavy.
Steaming and stamping,
long-lashed, slowly thinking
with the rhythm of their breathing,
early morning prairie sky.

Another, more complex context is what Snyder called in his response to the letters “the Great System.” He has emphasized that we need to focus on the world as a whole—and Indra’s Net has been a principal image of that perspective. Individuals are beings-as-interrelationships, and eating (thus killing) is “inter-eating,” a mutual interchange within the ecosphere. This concern with the Great System has aligned him with the school of deep ecology, which is based on the principle ofbiocentrism: what is of value is the biosphere as a whole rather than one species (for example, humans, the focus of anthropocentrism). The emphasis in biocentrism has been the nonhierarchical equality of all living things and the need to recognize our place and participate in nature’s processes.

A consideration of biocentrism led to the most controversial part of the article. Snyder had praised Native American hunting for decades and portrayed the celebratory joy of eating animals in the context of village life. Before the uproar, he had talked little about precepts, and indeed in his book Turtle Island gave as a title for one poem a quotation from the Chinese: “One Should Not Talk to a Skilled Hunter about What is Forbidden by the Buddha.” At the end of my article I ventured a possible defense for his perspective, derived from arguments found in deep ecology: “Buddhism, of course, has traditionally prohibited the eating of meat, but we can see why Snyder chooses not to accept that principle. . . . If we were to artificially remove ourselves from the meat-eating aspect of our location in the food web—something we share with many other animals—we would seem to be asserting for ourselves a special place in that web, and this would violate the biocentrism of Indra’s Net.” Logic exists in such an argument if one accepts biocentrism’s rejection of any hierarchy of values among species and its ideal of acting in harmony with nature’s system.”

Cave paintings, Los Caballos, Spain. © Mazonowicz/Art Resource, NY.

“Whoa!” said one letter to this passage. In his response even Snyder disagreed: “I do in fact accept that principle [of not eating meat] . . . ” But he added an important qualification: “as an idea, a challenge, and a goal, appropriate to time and place.” He then identified me with the most controversial part of my analysis of his writings. “When Barnhill seems to then argue that one should thereby eat meat, I must decline to agree.” As to the suggestion that it is artificial not to eat meat, he said, “It is Barnhill’s conclusion, and not my own.”

My attempt to defend Snyder thus led to a need to defend myself. In fact, I am a soft-core vegetarian, but the biocentric argument, as I read it (and which I respect but feel the need to qualify), is not so much that one should eat meat but rather that one should be wary of assuming levels of value within nature, and that one should take as a primary ideal the full and attentive participation in the Great System.

This aspect of the controversy reflects an evolving disagreement between deep ecology on the one hand and ecofeminism and animal rights on the other. Deep ecology tends to insist that we see the ecosphere—rather than organisms—as fundamental while advocates of the latter two groups focus more on the rights and suffering of individual beings. The letters criticizing the article placed the focus on individuals. Taken out of the context of Snyder’s emphasis on the Great System and what he calls the “shimmering gift exchange” of the food web, even Native American hunting and the fishing of villagers can seem like oppressive actions.

But in the absolute Buddhist perspective, the dualism of individual versus the whole is illusory. Hua-yen sees individuals as the system—not just parts that can be forgotten in the vision of the whole. The paradox of Huayen’s vision is that each individual is the whole, so inextricably interwoven with every other individual that we can’t reduce individuals to separate parts. A tree “is” the watershed; the biosphere “is” a fox, any particularity “is” the whole. It remains for deep ecology, I think, to articulate this fusion of individual and whole, to demonstrate that the integrity of (and full compassion for) the individual does not get lost in the integrity of the whole. Thich Nhat Hanh’s writings on “interbeing” might be a good place to start.

But I think there may be deeper reasons for these criticisms, reasons why these contexts of Snyder’s thought were ignored or simply not recognized. I can’t help but wonder if moralism may be a vein within American Buddhism, as it is in American culture in general. By moralism I mean a concern with ethics that has several specific qualities, including a tendency toward a simplicity of vision. Rather than seeing the world as a place of subtle and complex ethical issues, moralism insists that the world is easily understandable. Snyder is aware of the problem of reductionism. In his reply to the letters in Ten Directions,he writes: “The simple distinction ‘vegetarian/nonvegetarian’ is too simple.” He added that in Japan in 1961, when he was listening to a teisho (dharma talk) about the first precept, he “felt a certain righteousness because I had been a lifelong pacifist (and on-and-off vegetarian), and thought I knew how to understand the precept. Not so easy.”

Simplicity of vision is tied to moralism’s view of the process: clearly delineated rules that are applicable to all situations. If the precepts are commandments, then no one should ever eat meat. But does our world call for such simple rules? Snyder’s Zen teacher, Oda Roshi, was a strict vegetarian, but Snyder noted that Oda once said to him, “Just because I eat pure food, and some of the other priests do not, does not mean that I am superior to them. It is my own way of practice. Others have other ways. Each person must take the first precept as a deep challenge, and find his own way through life with it.”

Moralism also tends to seek a goal of “purity”—the avoidance of participation in the suffering of the world—which becomes a standard by which to judge others. But the suffering of other beings is as inevitable as our own. Or as Snyder put it: “This is the saha-world of dukkha, tragic with suffering,” where “every living thing impinges on every other living thing.”

In a Buddhist framework, moralism is one form of maintaining easy dualisms: vegetarian/non-vegetarian; following the precepts/not following the precepts; killing/not killing. The Buddhist tradition since early times has undercut this attitude toward the precepts. Bodhidharma’s commentary glosses the precept as “not giving rise to concepts of extinction,” which has been interpreted as “Don’t give rise to the thought of shutting out any negative aspect of life.” In an absolute view, for instance, there is no killer or killed. Ultimate Reality is often characterized as unborn, undying. And life itself, Zen Master Dogen (1200-1253) said, is nonkilling. In addition, the very dichotomy implicit in the notion of precepts has been questioned. The Zen master Bankei (1622-1693) said, “If you live according to [the Unborn], then from the first there’s no distinction between observing and not observing the precepts.”

It is difficult to say to what extent moralism played a role in the criticisms expressed in the letters. It certainly is too simple to dismiss their concern as mere moralism, for real issues were raised, such as the special responsibility that humans have in nature’s web. I agree that we have a special responsibility, but I would add (biocentrically) that so does every species and that I am suspicious of any notion that our responsibility is “greater” than that of other species.

BUT THE QUESTION REMAINS: what is our special responsibility? I would suggest that it is to behold and honor the complexity of life, practicing compassion within that vision. It means at times to embrace both sides of a dichotomy, however that may contradict logic or moral tidiness. The absolute interpretation of the precepts cannot be dismissed; on the other hand, cows do cry louder than cabbages. How to practice within both the absolute and relative perspectives is the continual challenge.

A related but more concrete tension exists between food-web metaphysics and bodhisattva ethics. Snyder, for instance, says that while we feel compassion for those who suffer, we also “must work hard to put aside our own opinions and stand humbly aside as the Great System goes through its moves.” Somehow we must affirm both compassion for the individual and acceptance of a Great System that is fundamentally characterized by suffering and death.

A third and related complexity is the notion of perfection, a topic central to the Buddhist analysis of reality. From an absolute point of view, reality is complete and perfect as it is. This perfection goes on beyond the conventional dichotomy of perfection and imperfection, indeed it is precisely the “perfection” realized when no such distinctions are made. Yasutani Roshi, in The Three Pillars of Zen, states that “a blind man, even while he is blind, is fundamentally whole and perfect; were this saucer on the table to be broken, each segment would be wholeness itself.” Enlightenment is the recognition of the unqualified plenitude of every moment and situation, of the immaculate suchness of all things, just as they are.

Yet from the relative point of view, life is filled with suffering. This is the Buddha’s first noble truth. Thus, Snyder speaks in Ten Directions of a larger view, “one that can acknowledge the simultaneous pain and beauty of this complexly interrelated real world.”

There is a more practical aspect of the issue of perfection. Is it possible in our world to live without killing? Can one, for instance, raise even an organic garden without killing some insects (let alone weeds)? Thich Nhat Hanh has given an interpretation of the first precept that brings to bear his notion of interbeing. If we “inter-are,” then the first precept should also imply “not allowing others to kill.” We are responsible for all harming, not just “our own.” From this perspective in particular, we all inevitably and continually fail to fulfill the first precept. Such an affirmation of the inescapable, systematic nature of suffering, that “every living thing impinges on every other living thing,” is not an excuse for a cynical dismissal of concern but rather the source of an intensified compassion.

The issue of perfection and imperfection will continue to animate Buddhist thought and practice. Life shimmers with perfection but is wracked with suffering; the giant act oflove that is Indra’s Net involves the pain and death of countless beings. One could say that Snyder has emphasized the shimmering more than the suffering of this gift exchange, but his Ten Directions article suggests the fullness of his vision.

As I entered the dharma hall to begin the ceremony, I focused again on this paradoxical world. I was about to accept the precept of non-killing but realized that hunters too can be teachers of compassion. At least it would seem that we should ground any moral judgments in a vision of the overwhelming complexity of Indra’s Net. And now looking back on the ceremony and the issues latent in it, I wonder if all of our life is not a jukai ritual, each moment accepting the precepts anew, bowing to all in gratitude, cherishing the incense.

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