Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Ovid and the Precepts

From Ovid's Metamorphoses (Gregory, Horace. "Book III: Actaeon," 1958.):
And these disasters
Were Fortune's errors and not his—for how can
Error without intention be called a crime?

What did the Buddha teach on this topic? The first precept, as stated in the Abhisanda Sutta1, says, "A disciple of the noble ones...abstains from taking life." What does this mean, exactly? The following five guidelines explain that, to violate this precept fully,
  1. A living being must have been killed;
  2. The person must have perceived that the being killed was a living being;
  3. The person must have had the intention to kill;
  4. The person must have exerted appropriate effort toward killing the being;
  5. The being must have died as a result of this effort.

The first thing to note is that these factors describe a complete violation of the precept. The precept may still be violated in a lesser manner. For instance, murder in the heat of passion is less egregious than premeditated murder, as the third factor was violated to a lesser degree. Therefore, it appears that the Buddha's teaching agrees, at least in part, with what Ovid stated in the Metamorphoses—intention plays a role.

Many modern temples, including mine, have extended this first precept to avoiding harming beings: "Do not harm, but cherish all life." How do the five factors above translate to this more global restatement of the precept? This is my personal opinion, but I think that simply by replacing the concept of "kill" with the concept of "harm," the guidelines are applicable. Again, however, note that partial violation is clearly possible. Maybe I intend to harm someone, but my actions ultimately help the person; I do not seem to have violated the 5th factor, but I've still violated this precept through my intent.

Furthermore, I argue that factor #3, intention, plays the primary role in the level of karmic effect of thoughts, speech, and actions (admittedly, I have no scriptural references at hand to back this up). This follows psychologically, as the deeper my intent on causing harm, the stronger is the seed in my unconscious that is enabling me to have this intention, overriding my "moral compass." Therefore, the result on my mind (karma) of this intent is stronger as well—anger begets anger, greed begets greed.

1-minute Contemplation: Have you harmed anyone today? Did you intend to do so? Even just a little bit? Could you have foreseen the harm if you had had just a little more wisdom?

1Access to Insight


Don Iannone said...


Wonderful. This line sticks with me like oatmeal on a cold winter morning: "for how can
Error without intention be called a crime?"

Ang said...

Your post caused me to think about the ways we "harm" people, whether in small or large ways, consciously or unconsciosuly, in order to manipulate others into being/acting as we wish them to be/act. Additionally, it seems that this type of behavior tends to be a symptom of fear and/or anger and can be its most devestating when one does not recognize those emotions as motivating factors.

Mike said...

Don: Yes, I've been loving Ovid's writing thus far.

Ang: Very true. "Harm" is much more broad than we might think at first glance. Thanks for the comment!

Dan said...

And somewhere the Buddha said, "Karma is intention."