On a recent frigid morning two monks walked to their sangha along a river and through woods, discussing morality and mindfulness. They talked about whether there was a “natural” morality that all humans shared and what the relationship was between present moment awareness, the core of mindfulness, and moral behavior.
“Do you think there is a natural law against the taking of a human life?” the first monk, who was the younger one, asked.
“I think most cultures have a repugnance for killing other human beings,” the second monk said. “ With a good many exceptions, such as in war or when threatened by someone.”
“But most cultures still find killing of humans to be repugnant, don’t you think?” the first monk asked again.
“Most people would still say it was absolutely okay, and probably not repugnant to kill to protect yourself or someone else who is innocent,” the second monk answered.
“Yes, true. But what about cold-blooded killing?” the first monk persisted.
“A lot of people are in favor of capital punishment which is cold-blooded killing.” The second monk always blew holes in the first monk’s concepts.
“So much for a natural law, “ the first monk said with a sigh. “But I find the taking of human life for any reason repugnant. I don’t believe in war or capital punishment,”
“Yes,” the second monk rejoined, “but do you support abortion or assisted suicide? Some would call those the willful taking of human life.”
“It's not the same. In the case of abortion I am opposed once the fetus is viable outside the womb. Then it is a separate person. Before fetal viability to me it isn’t really taking of a life as such."
“Yes, it is a complicated dilemma, abortion. But what about the ‘right to die’? Some people believe that is taking a life.”
“Again, this is a person making a decision about their own life, their own body. I think a person who is of sound mind and in the late stages of a terminal illness has that right, to take their own life. That could be a wise decision for some people. I don’t think anyone should interfere, least of all the government.”
“Okay, but what about someone who isn’t terminally ill? Most people who kill themselves are not of sound mind,”
“That is true, but most are in terrible pain and misery. I still believe a person has a right to kill themselves.” The first monk often had great empathy for anyone who was suffering.
“Yes, but don’t we have the right to try to stop someone from killing themselves, like a minor, or someone who is depressed?”
“I agree about minor, or someone who is psychotic,” the first monk said. “I’m not sure they actually have the right. But people who suffer from extreme depression over many years and can’t get relief—maybe they have the right to escape their misery.”
“Maybe,” the second monk said, “But how can we know? Are there any absolutes we can turn to?” “I don’t think most of us believe in absolutes any more.” The first monk said sounding demoralized. She secretly longed for absolutes.
The two monks walked along in silence for awhile, careful on the slippery path. Beside them the river rushed by under patchy ice.
“Maybe commandments are there to remind us of where the boundaries are so we’ll remember not to go too far, too fast?” the first monk posited.
“And that is why we make children memorize them,” the second monk agreed.
“So that when you need them they’ll pop up in the mind.”
“Yes. But commandments need to be backed up with a willingness to sort through the details. Mindfulness practice helps you consider all the various principles to figure out what it the right thing for you to do.” The second monk paused beside the river overlooking where beavers had been active. There was no sign of the animals except their handiwork. All around the willow saplings had been chewed down to make the dam and lodge.
“But many people try kill themselves impulsively. Even when people plan they are often unable to be very mindful because they are in so much pain. Their lives just don't feel worth living. And maybe they aren't!”
“Maybe not in that moment. But we have to remember that there is a path out of suffering.” They walked on and the older monk continued, “Here is where I think mindfulness guides us. It doesn’t just say ‘here is the commandment, follow it or you are a sinner.’ It says, ‘Come into the present moment and see reality as it is. Don’t act in the heat of emotion. Pause, take it all in, then proceed based on your best understanding. And be prepared to change course based on what you observe and describe in your practice.’ I think that anyone who can bring themselves rest in the breath for a some time each day can find meaning in life, and a way to avoid harming others or themselves even in a heated moment. To me that is the power of entering the moment non-judgmentally.” “I’m just not sure that people in such misery can find the moment! And who are we to say anything to them?” The first monk was feeling willful.
“Ultimately, we are no one to say, of course. But the dharma itself says it all if we can somehow see it. The dharma has the power to illuminate someone who feels they are at the end of their rope. There is always more rope.”
“And there is always more compassion.” The young monk laughed. She had arrived at a resting place for now and could put down her questions. The two monks trudged up the hill to the meditation room, pausing at the top to look over the valley with its sheltering mountains covered with snow that sparkled in the morning sunlight. Then they stepped inside the warm quiet room where their sangha had already gathered.