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Practicing the Dharma and Picking Sides

Four years ago, I had the opportunity to live and work on an organic farm in upstate New York. We grew berries for jam, fungi for teas, and raised chickens. As a farming apprentice, my job was to care for the animals, maintain the greenhouse where we grew our seedlings, and pull an endless number of weeds from our fruit and vegetable beds.

When I first started living on the property, I noticed a coyote that liked to hang out on the perimeter of the farm. Normally, there would be a farm dog of some indistinguishable breed running around that would chase coyotes and other animals away. But this particular farm didn’t have a dog, so the coyote stayed and observed me every morning while I worked.

One day, I was working in the green house when I heard a commotion coming from the chicken coop. I ran over to see the coyote investigating the electric fence that surrounded the coop, and trying to get inside. I took a moment to observe the situation and then I froze, unsure of how to proceed.

Generally, coyotes stay away from human settlements, preferring the safety of the forest.  However, habitat loss has caused their food supplies to dwindle and forced them to come into contact with humans and livestock to ill effect. 

A single coyote can decimate an entire chicken coop in one night, and coyote killing contests are common throughout the United States. Hunters compete to see who can hunt, kill, and skin the most coyotes in the shortest period of time. As a result, 400,000 coyotes are killed by hunters each year.

That being said, coyotes are not without merits. They are adaptable and intelligent, with a range that spans the entirety of North America. They are able to live in the wilderness, but they also thrive in urban areas, where they avoid human contact by being most active at night. Coyotes are an important predator species that helps to keep rodent and amphibian populations in check. And they are an integral part of Native American folklore, in which they are often portrayed as trickster gods and shapeshifters.

I say all of this to say that I didn’t bear any ill-will toward the coyote. He was hungry and he was acting in accordance with his coyote-nature—looking for something to eat. Similarly, I didn’t bear any ill-will toward the chickens. They wanted to live. And they were acting in accordance with their chicken-nature—trying to not be eaten. Clearly, someone was going to be unhappy in the next few minutes, and my actions would decide whom.

I grabbed a stick and metal trash can lid that was laying on the ground nearby and started banging them together as I ran towards the coyote. I didn’t want to hurt him, but as a farm apprentice it was my job to protect the chickens. He’d have to find something else to eat.

It didn’t take long for him to realize that his presence was unwanted and he ran back into the woods. I never saw him again.

As Buddhists, we often think that the epitome of our practice is to remain neutral in all circumstances. But this isn’t true. Rather, our practice is to work for the benefit of all beings.  And sometimes that work requires us to pick sides during a conflict.

In his own life, the Buddha had to do this in order to alleviate hardship for as many people as possible. However, through the strength of his practice he was able to intervene in ways that reduced harm for people on both sides of the disagreement.

In some cases, this involved him acting as a mediator, helping the opposing sides come to a mutually beneficial agreement. Other times, he used his body as a shield so that others could escape an attacking army. And still other times he gave a teaching or set an example that helped people see the error of their ways, encouraging them to behave in a more skillful manner.

They key, however, is that he did all of this without giving in to the poisons of greed, anger, and ignorance. He stood up for victims without bearing ill-will toward the people who wished to do them harm. This isn’t an easy thing to do. But the Buddha’s example shows that it is possible if we are diligent in our practice.

Whether it’s a coyote that’s trying to steal inside a chicken coop or an instance of gross injustice (racism, sexism, homophobia, and so on), the Dharma requires us to practice Right Action in order to remove suffering from the world. However, as Buddhists we must see the big picture as we go about our work.

In the same way that I had to protect the chickens without hating the coyote, Buddhists must take moral and political stances without hating the people who are on the other side.  When we do this, we become living buddhas—taking the written words of the Buddha and making them relevant in our daily lives.

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