What to Make of Taking Life

Last week I had the inspiration to write about a subtlety of meaning in a phrase. I wanted to convey an unconventional but all-or-nothing understanding of the first Buddhist Precept: A follower of the Way does not take life.

I wrote and edited for an hour, stalling out with over clarification. I could not get to my main point. So involved was I, in covering all the off-shoots that would provide ballast, that the work lost all life. I had taken the life right out of it.

So, I tried again the next day—a new approach, hopefully learning from my missteps of the day before. Major loss of life again.

Writing is such a difficult task because of the self-editing that occurs as the pencil is drawn along the page or the fingers pause repeatedly on the keyboard. Everyone who writes knows there seems to be so much at stake. The piece must be clear. It must flow. It must be informative. It must be interesting. Clever. Concise. Grammatically correct. Add or subtract a few attributes depending upon your purpose, your topic, your audience. Hold these ideas as present-time judgment, and the writing is not real, not fluid, not alive.

This can be obvious in the writing process, but what about the self-editing that is hiding in our everyday activities? How concerned with ourselves are we as we navigate the world? Do we try to steer and shape conversations? Do we offer help to others with insistence that we know what’s best for them? When we pass along information, do we shave off a bit of truth or embellish with a bit of me-ness? Paying attention to our actions we can become familiar with our editing-for-the-benefit-of-ego behavior. We discover that we take life as soon as we attach to ego. Attaching to ego is to take life.

We all know to the bone, the pain of realizing we’ve hurt someone. This knowing and feeling the pain of ego-driven action can bring about transformation. If ego doesn’t step right back in to make excuses, the responsibility of all actions becomes crystal clear. The ego has dissolved and a natural shift in behavior occurs. A spontaneity to tend to the life of all beings blooms.

We live in the world of relationship whether ego-centric or not. With armor of ego, our actions could be called taking of life. With open interest, open listening, ego does not manifest and limit appropriate response. Compassion transforms from our idea of compassion, to responsive compassion. There is no ego (to be) at risk. Aliveness is at risk. A follower of the Way does not take life.

Ultimately life cannot be taken. Life would have to be a thing, have a particular location, and be separate from us. True life (what is that? breathe, look, listen). True life is not a thing and cannot be taken by a persistent, separate entity known as me. However, life understood that way, is exactly as if taken away. When following the Way there is no taking life.

What is the Way? The Way is not a path. The Way is thorough, complete immersion in this activity. So complete is the participation that ego, ego-agenda, and ego-action have completely ceased. Ego is a fabrication, and this is known without doubt. The Way is life life-ing.*

*Life life-ing a phrase used by Dainin Katagiri.

© 2012 Bev Forsman and Letters from Emptiness. If you share this material, please include direction to the original content. Thank you.

11 thoughts on “What to Make of Taking Life

  1. markwcunningham says:

    “Paying attention to our actions we can become familiar with our editing-for-the-benefit-of-ego behavior”….. Don’t I know it! Thanks…..


  2. Nigel Hillen says:

    No willed action is ever entirely free of ego, including this one, yet (to paraphrase Katagiri Roshi) we have to write something. Just as long as the basic urge to express ourselves is not prompted by ego, i.e. if we examine our mind until we are quite sure that there is no trace of “self”-centred motivation. The same applies, of course, to our actions in life. I’m (clearly) not there yet, but many thanks for addressing this topic.


    • suvinita says:

      Thank you for your comment Nigel. By definition, willed action is action of “self”-centered motivation. Action can be entirely free of “self” or “ego” (that sense of self which is grasped). This is called natural action. Natural action occurs when completely, openly participating in life as life, without “self”-centeredness, without the confusion of believing in separateness. The concepts that inform life as “me” and “you” can be realized as illusory, but useful. Knowing these concepts for what they truly are, is freedom from ego. We walk the relative world as “tranquillity and imperturbability” (Katagiri). Freedom comes and goes, as we grasp and notice grasping, as we are confused and notice confusion.

      There is a footnote in Buddhism Plain and Simple that spans pages 156–7. There, Steve describes willed action beautifully.

      Examining our mind looking for traces or no traces of self-motivation is intellectual practice. Measuring binds our effort. The Way is participation. We cannot keep track of enlightenment.


  3. Ken Christenson says:

    When I went from the pen to the keyboard I think my writing lost a lot of its life. I’m thinking of going back to the pen (or perhaps to one of these new cel phones that lets you scribble on a screen and then converts to print). There’s a commitment there. Same as the commitment to let each moment be what it is. (I edited this comment 3 times.) Thanks Bev. (No editing there.)


  4. Jim Langemo says:

    Love how you connect the self-editing process in writing to the self-editing process in the rest of life. In writing, when you edit too soon, you drain out creativity, inspiration and honesty – your voice gets lost because your focus gets fixed on something “out there”. I appreciated your connection to how we do the same in other aspects of life when we control conversations, control information and control relationships.


    • suvinita says:

      Yes, we really like to insert ourselves. It’s as if we displace life with our held ideas of me and all that we identify with. Good to hear from you, Jim.


  5. Wanda Isle says:

    Timely and thought-provoking. “Responsive compassion” vs. “our idea of compassion” is a topic we don’t hear enough about. There is much confusion around it in Zen, as we all struggle to do the right thing. Thanks for your insight.


    • suvinita says:

      Thank you for your feedback Wanda.
      Luckily–and without fail–it is the same mechanism of held-ideas that brings (or is) the confusion. We wake up from the same habit, no matter the situation. We only have to discover/practice one way!


  6. Matt Modrow says:

    Yes, I really liked this blog. It is hard to just write freely most of the time, too busy thinking of the outcome and how you want it to appear to readers. I love how this process was talked about in this blog. Thanks, Bev


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