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On Slugs and Karma

There will always be a special place in my heart for slugs. They get a bad rap for being small and slimy, but they’re amazing creatures. They live primarily by eating rotting and decaying matter. And they’re hermaphroditic, containing both male and female parts. This means they can produce sexually—with another slug—and asexually—through self-fertilization—depending on the circumstances.

I think the moment that I fell in love with slugs happened when I was 10 years old. I was in the garage, cleaning up a pile of poop that our dog had left in there. I had just shoveled the waste into a garbage bag and I was heading out to grab the hose so that I could wash the concrete floor when I saw them. Two massive slugs, each the length of my index finger, were dropping from ceiling. They hung from thick slime trails and they spun around each other as if they were caught in a breeze that only they could feel.

I stood there, hypnotized by their dance for several minutes until my mom yelled at me from the kitchen and asked me what was taking so long. I thought about telling her about the slugs, but something stopped me. I lived in a house with four brothers and sisters, a mom, a dad, and a dog. I had to share everything. I wanted to keep the slugs for myself.

So I finished up in the garage and went inside for dinner. After our meal, I washed the dishes and went back out into the garage when no one was looking. The slugs were intertwined with each other so that it was hard to tell where one stopped and the other began. They didn’t move except for an occasional ripple that shot through their shared body.

It was the most beautiful, intimate thing I’d seen in my life. I’m not sure how long I stood there, but I know it was long enough for my legs to start hurting and for my feet to throb against the hard floor. But I didn’t dare go back inside: I knew that I was seeing something special, something that most people didn’t get to see. And I wanted to watch until the end.

Eventually, they slowly, carefully began to unravel from each other; spinning in the opposite direction from when they started their dance. Then they slowly retreated back up their slime trails toward the ceiling. I watched them move almost to the ceiling and then I heard my mom yelling, asking where I’d gone. It was time for bed.

I thought about that night recently when I was giving my girlfriend a tour of our garden. I was every inch the proud gardener, beaming as I pointed out the first blackberries of the season and smirking as I discussed the size of the cabbage plants that I’d harvested that morning. But the mood quickly changed when we got to the bush bean plants.

Bush beans are a personal favorite of mine because each one has large green leaves that move around like satellite dishes; angling to get the maximum amount of sunlight. However, several of plants had large holes in their leaves and they were slouching despondently as a result. If the damage got any worse, they would die.

It didn’t take long to determine the cause of the destruction. As we looked closely at the soil, my girlfriend and I noticed several slugs moving around. And there were several more climbing on the undersides of the bush beans, taking a bite out of the leaves each time they inched forward.

As I looked at those slugs going about their lives and remembered that fateful night in my childhood garage, I was filled with regret. Because, despite the fond memory from my youth, I knew I had to kill every one of them.

The reason is simple. I’m a homesteader and I’m growing vegetables with the goal of providing food for my household. If the slugs eat all the beans, that takes food out of our mouths. Of course, I could just buy beans at the store, but then some farmer in some far-off land—probably North Dakota or Michigan—would have to fight off the slugs on their property. And I don’t like the idea of farming out my negative karma to others—pun intended.

And let’s be clear: there is negative karma associated with killing. That’s why the first lay precept of Buddhism forbids it. And yet, if growing vegetables has taught me anything, it’s that killing and death are inescapable parts of life. Earthworms, cabbage moths, grasshoppers, and slugs are all killed as part of the growth and maintenance of a garden.

As a Buddhist minister, I know that their deaths are tragic. And as a homesteader, I know that their deaths are unavoidable. This is why the first noble truth tells us: “Life is suffering.” Because there are times in life when it’s impossible to not cause harm. In these times, we can only do our best, ensuring that as much good comes out of the interaction as possible, and working to make amends with the ones we hurt.

That said, when I entered the garden several days later, intent on exterminating the slugs, I made the promise that no food from the garden would be wasted—that it would be harvested and prepared in such a way as to provide optimum nutrition for me and my family.

I also wrote this letter to the slugs, which I buried in the soil near the bean bushes:

Dear Slugs,

I think you are wonderful, beautiful creatures. And I appreciate the important role you play in our ecosphere. However, we have come into conflict. You desire to eat my bush beans, and I desire to do the same. And our desires are leading to suffering as they often do.

As a result of this conflict, I’ve made the choice to kill you, which is a violation of Buddhism’s first lay precept. I know that negative karma will result from this action, however, I deem it necessary in order to save others from having to do this deed, and to feed the members of my household. This will result in a mixed bag of positive and negative karma—negative due to your deaths and positive due to the food that my family will enjoy.

That said, the teaching of reincarnation makes it clear that there will come a day when the roles are reversed. In some future life, on some other plane of existence I will be the slug and you will be the homesteader. In that moment, I don’t know what choice you will make, but if you choose to take my life, please know that I won’t hold it against you. It will simply be my own karma coming back to me.

Namu Amida Butsu

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A Humanitarian Action for Other Living Beings: Creating Space for Urban Biodiversity through Buddhist Gardening
Touching the Earth: An Ecodharma Retreat
Environmental Warriors: Buddhist Eco-monks and Tree Ordination

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