Nonviolence and the Dharma

The issue of nonviolence is one that I struggle with, at least in my thoughts, when it comes to the Dharma.

I am not a violent person by nature. I have no struck anyone in anger in probably a decade and I haven’t been in a physical fight since I was in high school. I generally avoid such things and the situations that give rise to them.

It is a violent world though. Historically and now, there are people that are happy to take anything and everything from you, including your life. There are people that are more than happy to hurt you or your family and friends because it either gets them what they want or simply because they enjoy doing so. It makes some people feel powerful or in control to inflict harm upon others. Desperate people also do short sighted or unthinking things that they would not otherwise do, including harming others.

As a Buddhist who has gone through Jukai, I’ve taken on the Five Precepts. The first of these precepts is:

I undertake the precept to refrain from taking the life of living beings. Pānātipātā veramani sikkhāpadam samādiyāmi

This can be viewed and discussed in a number of ways or looked at in the form of an affirmation for the promotion of life. That being said, it is a vow not to kill and, by extension, not to cause harm to other beings.

How do we reconcile that and living in this world? This is something that my mind keeps returning to at times. This has become especially relevant to me because I received a gun from my father about a month and a half before he died. It was a pistol that he and I used to shoot together and I still have it (and ammunition). I also live in a city where violence is far from unheard of in a neighborhood that isn’t terribly dangerous but it also not entirely safe at times. (This could describe much of the East Bay in a nutshell in my opinion but others may disagree.) I grew up around guns and while I’m not a great shot, I know what I’m doing and I’m perfectly comfortable using a gun and with its mechanisms. It has always been an interesting piece of engineering along with being used for target shooting.

I’ve thought about getting rid of this. I’ve thought very hard about doing so, in fact. The purpose of a gun is to kill. No ifs, ands or buts. If you want to look at it esoterically, the only mode of expression or will that a firearm has is to fire. The only goal of firing, outside of practice, is to kill. It isn’t like you’re going to chop wood with bullets or use the pistol as a hammer.

By all rights, I should get rid of it. So far, I haven’t done so. I live in a dangerous world and in this world, bad things happen to you and your family. Sometimes people need to protect themselves and this nags at the back of my mind when I ponder getting rid of it. They are all unlikely scenarios or edge cases, such as disaster preparedness, but they are there. I am also, traditionally, a believer in the right to bear arms and the responsibilities it brings.

If I use the gun on a person, I will violate my vow. Intention only goes so far and when you kill another being, you have ended their potential, completely and forever. If the only use of a gun is to kill and I have a vow not to kill, how can I keep it? In a dangerous world, is it wise to remove a protection, especially one that you know how to use.

I haven’t come up with a good answer to any of this. I can clearly see that the right thing to do is to get rid of it but I am unsure if I’m committed to all of the consequences, real or imaginary, of doing so. I’m not a pacifist even if I respect the sanctity of life and all beings. I’m also not a vegetarian so I kill through other means constantly as well.

This entry has been an attempt to think, out loud if you will, about some of my thoughts around this. I know it reads possibly as hypocritical but maybe I should have the courage of my convictions moreso than I do. I cannot honestly think of a scenario where a firearm would be necessary that wouldn’t cause me to violate my vows. I also cannot think of a scenario where a firearm would be necessary where I might not be glad that I had one at hand either. Having it and hoping that I never use it does not resolve anything and is simply cowardly as well.