Monday, September 21, 2009

Spiders with boots?

I know I may be splitting hairs when I assert that morality is conditional rather than relative, but I prefer the term “conditional” because I believe it forces me to be realistic in my evaluation of whatever circumstances I am in at the moment.

That’s the key – the circumstances I am in at the moment, not what might happen or could happen. What is happening right now. Because how I act right now – either via speech, action, or thought – is going to create consequences that will influence events in my future. Worrying about what might happen is a waste of time. I need to pay attention to what is happening right now to exert positive influence on what might happen later.

Yet, I encounter these “what if” scenarios in Buddhist groups all the time. For example, with the First Precept, to refrain from killing living creatures, someone always has to come up with some hypothetical situation to begin a discussion on whether there is such a thing as a justifiable killing.

A common scenario is one in which your mother is being attacked by a knife-wielding man and you have the opportunity to intervene because you’re carrying a gun. So if you shoot this man, would your kamma be “excused” because you were acting out of a desire to preserve life, not take life?

When I hear this blather, I’m like, “Whoa, where did all this come from? Why are you reaching to the very top of the tree to pull down leaves we don’t need to be concerned with at all?”

There are so many things wrong with discussions like these, but here’s just a few.

For one, in such a scenario, there appears to be a presumption that shooting and killing the attacker is the only solution. I’ve yet to encounter someone who offers the possibility that you could talk the attacker out of committing violence.

For another, the scenario presumes that I would ever be in that type of situation to begin with. The whole point of living skillfully is to avoid such encounters by associating with the right people, by paying attention to your surroundings, and not going into places where you shouldn’t be.

We think such discussions are valid and meaningful, but it’s just a trick by our deluded mind, a mind that would rather contemplate meaningless scenarios rather than contemplating something of value, such as, “How do I cause my suffering? And how can I stop doing that?”

Sometimes I respond to such hypothetical scenarios by describing one of my own.

“What if spiders wore boots?”

You can imagine the responses I get to a question like that. And the sad thing is that when I ask this question, people think I’m the weird one.

In case you didn’t get the allusion I was making above regarding reaching to the tops of the trees, I suggest you read the Simsapa Sutta: The Simsapa Leaves (SN 56.31).


  1. The people that bring up the hypothetical hostage situations are also usually the ones to invoke Godwin's Law. I really don't know why people have to reach for extremes. Why not use examples from your own life that have been tough to deal with? Very silly.

    Nice blog btw.

  2. Why are you reaching to the very top of the tree to pull down leaves we don’t need to be concerned with at all?”

    Wonderful line. This reminds me of my Christian days when I studied Jewish law, especially during the Rabbinical period. There were always these extreme hypothetical situations brought up that ended up deciding what one should do in the present, which ended up heaping up a lot of suffering. The dharma jewel seen in this is incredibly freeing.

  3. Adam: I agree, sharing our personal struggles can be much more instructive to others than discussing what would happen if spiders wore boots.

    Jamie: Very interesting, thanks for sharing that. I wonder what similarities might exist in the Vinaya.