Ahimsa is a word derived from Sanskrit, an ancient Indian language from around or immediately after the time of the Buddha. It means to not kill, or to not harm, depending on who is translating it. I’ve come across this word a number of times not necessarily knowing what it meant but I’ve realized that it describes a major principle that I’ve tried to adopt since starting to practice the Buddha’s teachings.
The idea of being perfectly harmless in all things is a little idealistic (as might be anything nearing perfection), at least as a householder. A family-man is generally expected to protect the home from invasion, whether it be human or animal, and this often ends up causing harm to beings that, quite frankly, don’t even realize they are doing anything “wrong.”
Regardless of the challenges, it is still a principle for which I strive. I occasionally refer to myself as a pacifist, a word I’ve used a little more often of late with the crisis unfolding in Syria. Friends have asked me for my opinion of it, and sometimes I think I’m a little embarrassed to be seen as “someone who would let a ruthless dictator go unchallenged,” but it isn’t really so simple, of course. As difficult as it may be for many people, I think if one is led by wisdom to perceive that there is no possibility of a good outcome in a given situation, that person must stand by the decision to just stay out of it.
It deeply saddens me that so many people are suffering so greatly around the world. It is something that I think we ought to contemplate — we need to consider how our actions feed this raging global engine of hate. The Buddha did not condemn the Kings of his time for their use of military might, but neither did he ever specifically approve of violence perpetuated by the state. Ultimately, we are each responsible for our own actions, created by them, and they are the only thing we take into death with us.
If I must choose between being a imperfect pacifist or explicitly approving of violence, I think I’ll have to side with practicing ahimsa to the best of my ability. One can only appease hatred by non-hatred, violence by harmlessness, ill will by compassion.
Let us each practice being harmless, and thereby benefit innumerable living beings. Be well, friends.