One Thousand Dead People and the Bodhisattva Ideal
Like the old song of the 60's coffeehouses says, how many deaths will it take 'till we know, that too many people have died?
To kill is to create the causes and conditions to be killed in future lives. Repeatedly. This is what my teachers tell me. To approve of killing, accede to it in the mind, rejoice in it when it happens, creates similar causes and conditions as the killing itself. To die prematurely is to ripen causes and conditions from your past, eliminating them from your future. Of course, we can always create new karma far faster than we can ripen it.
Let's leave it there for the moment.
The commitments of a Bodhisattva are two. The first one is to achieve absolute and total enlightenment exactly like Shakyamuni Buddha, the second one is to help everyone you can, as much as you can, to also achieve total enlightenment right up until the very moment that you achieve it yourself. After that, you don't have to worry about it. Both the enlightenment and the continuous help to others simply happen spontaneously.
Total enlightenment is more than the "cessation of suffering" that many of the Buddha's first students achieved. It also goes beyond "realization" which is the crucial first insight of a Bodhisattva. The cessation of suffering happens when you perceive directly and continuously the absence of a personal "self". Realization occurs when you perceive directly both the absence of a "self" and the non-reality or "emptiness" of all things. Total enlightenment is when you have finally cleared away all subtle impediments from emotivity and conceptual thinking, and the experience of emptiness is so complete that you are actually omniscient.
The Buddha became who he was by deepening realization into total enlightenment over many lifetimes. The traditional stories of these past lives are the Jakata Tales. The Bodhisattva takes a vow to do likewise.
Why? The subtle difference is one of focus and attitude. Everyone wants to be happy and cease to suffer, but if you turn outward from that desire for a moment, you can immediately see that two questions remain beyond it: What about everything else? and What about everyone else? When you apply these questions to the world, it is immediately apparent that it is full of suffering people who are just like you.
So what do you do about that?
To ask this question is to sprout the seeds of compassion and loving kindness, of a desire to reach out to the world in the same way the Buddha himself reached out to the world.
I am, if you will, a Bodhisattva-in-training, developing my aspiration to be an actual Bodhisattva. From the very first meeting with my primary teacher, he fostered my impulse to ask those outward looking questions both by his words and his example. He was my "spiritual friend" [still is, for that matter] carefully nurturing those sprouts of compassion and loving kindness that allow you to formally take the Bodhisattva Vow, to explicitly commit to achieving total enlightenment and to helping others to do so.
It is said that the vow itself creates an intangible "vow form" that actually changes your relationship to the world. I can testify to this to some degree. Before taking the vow, my capacity to be aware of how much I was hurting or helping others by my actions was patchy and sporadic. After taking it, my awareness of the helpful and wholesome things I did was much clearer and more satisfying. And the awareness of my mistakes and hurtfulness not only became clearer, it took on an emotional tone like the children's poison warning sticker Mr. Yuk.
This change, by the way, was very definite and sudden.
When you are a Bodhisattva-in-training, the primary ways you can actually help people are less a matter of any personal intervention and more a matter of cultivating your aspiration, and of prayer.
"Prayer" is an inadequate and somewhat misleading translation of what you actually do. But we use it here in America because we are often asked to do this by non-Buddhists for friends and family in trouble. The actual practices can vary, but a simple example is that of "redeeming lives". In the same way that killing creates bad future causes and conditions, saving lives does precisely the opposite. So you can buy worms or live minnows in a bait store and release them in the grass or a river respectively.
Having done this, you then clearly and wholeheartedly think, "May all future good from this action help so-and-so in particular, and everybody in general." We also have specific spoken liturgies which say the same thing.
My primary teacher is a very old man, about 83 by our method of counting. He was born into a Tibetan family of herding nomads who paid no real attention to birthdays. He first came to America at age 53, dogged by serious medical problems, some life threatening, from his very hard younger life. About ten years after he came to teach us, our Dharma Center started the regular practice of releasing lives and "dedicating the merit" to his longevity.
So far, he's beaten the Tibetan averages by about 18 years, and the American ones by about 12.
This is the first time I have used the word "merit" for what is transferred by your prayer and aspiration. This typical translation is also a little misleading, evoking associations of Boy Scout Merit Badges, and so forth. In the same way that the Bodhisattva Vow creates a vow form, all our actions of major significance impact the intangible both in ourselves and in the world, shaping the future in the process. By intentionally and genuinely dedicating the merit of an action to someone's benefit, you link them intangibly to this process of change. And it is this that is meant by praying for someone's happiness, longevity, or health.
So let's return to that first 1000 dead men, executed for murder, mostly by lethal injection, sometimes by electrocution, and once in a while by firing squad. The future implications of their deaths are both profound and troubling, particularly if you have made the Bodhisattva Vow.
Killing per se is a bad thing. And the murderer will unquestionably face the consequences of this action in future lives. But I am not going to lay out the usual list of reasons against capital punishment.
What I want to say instead is that the worst future results of an execution are likely to occur to a murder victim's friends and relatives.
You find this shocking? Let me elaborate. In the Buddhist view, the murderer, the victim, and the family have very unhealthy karmic bonds in this life from lives past. This is why the murder occurs in the first place. The act of murder itself breaks at least some of those karmic bonds among the parties concerned, though it imposes new and very bad ones on the murderer himself.
But families and friends of the victim often develop more hatred for the murderer, and still have bonds of love for the victim. They may desire the murderer's execution, sometimes are even present at it, and may even directly demand it in order to have "closure".
In thinking this they are mistaken. They are not closing the matter. They are making sure that it is reopened in a future life, with all the parties still tied together by the ugly bonds which could have been broken, and constrained to undergo all this suffering again in some new pattern of killing and dying.
Similar bad future results are created throughout the community for people who actively support, praise, and are gratified by, executions. And the bonds between them of extended suffering insure that both the legal and the illegal killing will continue unabated, and maybe even expanded, into the indefinite future.
Map of the US with States Proportional in Size to their Executions
So, as a Bodhisattva-in-training, I would say without hesitation that the worst results of capital punishment are what it does to the people who champion it. Fully one-third of the 1000 American executions have taken place in Texas and the culture of support for this runs deep and wide there.
It gives me a chill to think of it--particularly when I remember the 2 million dead from the Khymer Rouge.
May all beings, without exception, benefit from my past, present, and future good actions.