A large house fly buzzes around the room, touching down vertically on the window screen. I approach slowly and open it. The fly scuttles out. Compassion extends to all beings. A cockroach taught me this.
Of all the insects, the roach was, to me, the most detestable. One summer day- twenty years ago- I found a large water bug in a mop bucket. In my cruelty, I poured cleaning fluid in the bucket to drown and kill it. Several minutes later, I returned to see the poor creature writhing and convulsing in agony. But my heart was hard; I didn't care if it suffered. An hour later, I returned to the bucket and was amazed to find the bug standing triumphantly, pruning its antennae the way bugs do. Something in that monstrosity wanted to live as much as I did. I was humbled, and out of respect for the spirit that animated it and gave it life, I released the roach and never harmed another insect.
A seed of compassion was planted that day. It sprouted and grew over time, bearing fruit. Like the Jains, who walk with their eyes to the ground so as not to crush ants underfoot, I began regarding every living being as I did myself.
I respect pests. Even the detested fly is a marvel. Lowly and despised, it is an accomplished flier. The aerodynamics, which the fly knows nothing about, confound both mathematical and experimental analysis.
More than compassion moves me, however. I feel a kinship with all living things. What becomes of the fly? What becomes of the spirit that animates it? What becomes of the spirit that lights every living thing that comes into the world? The answer to these questions might redefine how we approach life. Am I as insignificant as the fly? Am I as divine as the fly?
For that which befalleth the sons of men befalleth beasts; even one thing befalleth them: as the one dieth, so dieth the other; yea, they have all one breath; so that a man hath no preeminence above a beast. (Eccl. 3:19)
My friends, who are not wanting in compassion, tease me in love. One is a gardener. Insects destroy crops. Some of them are nibbling on the plants in my garden even as I write this. I scatter bird seed around the garden for a natural balance. But, I don't mind sharing with the six-leggeds. The universe gives in abundance; there is enough. Another friend is a nurse. Mosquitos and ticks are vectors for a host of diseases, she reminds me. Statistically, though, I'm more likely to be killed by another member of my species than by a mosquito or tick. I wear repellant and brush them off when they land on me. Sometimes, Ill watch and let them feed, their bellies swelling with a few drops of blood the universe made out of the same atoms that make up the mosquito.
A mosquito landed on the arm of a Buddhist monk.
“Why don’t you kill it?” asks his student.
“It is the nature of the mosquito to sting and to draw blood, and it is the nature of the Buddha to show compassion for all living things.”
When I was a teacher in Los Angeles, a cockroach scurried across the classroom floor during one of my lessons. A child screamed, “A cockroach. Kill it! Kill it!”
“Don’t!” I grabbed a clear plastic cup and trapped it.
“Ewwww! Why didn’t you kill it, Mr. Felix?”
“It was afraid and running for safety,” I said. “‘All beings tremble before danger; all fear death,” I said, taking a line out of the Dhammapada. “Wouldn’t you be afraid if you saw a giant as tall as a skyscraper coming to stomp you out?”
“But it’s nasty, Mr. Felix.”
“They certainly look different from us. Some people are curious. Entomologists study them. In some cultures, they're eaten or used for medicine."
"Did you know that these bugs have been around for millions of years since the age of dinosaurs? They will probably be around for millions more. They're very hardy and play a role in the circle of life. Nature designed them well. Let’s release it outside away from the building.”
Several months later, during a parent conference, a mother was scolded by her son when she rose to kill an insect. She shared the story with me. “Don’t kill it mom!” the boy said. “He’s scared. Would you like it if somebody stepped on you?” I watered seeds of compassion within the child and it grew.
My students were descendants of people who were detested, stepped on, and exterminated as if they were cockroaches. Some were of African descent, their skin color like some accursed mark still provoking suspicion and fear. Many were of indigenous descent, immigrants from Mesoamerica, where native peoples were (and are) still despised and still displaced- like the Chiapa and Mixes-Zoques of Mexico- or slaughtered, as the Mayans were during Guatemala’s 36 year civil war.
My neighbors are Mayan. They have a four year old daughter. One day she was stomping on an ant in the driveway and raised her foot to stamp out another one.
"Oh, please don't step on them. They're my friends. That's Maria. She's working hard to feed her family." She looks at me quizzically, then smiles.
"These are your friends?" she asks incredulously.
"Oh, yes. Please don't hurt them."
Weekly, she reports that she's seen my friends and hasn't harmed them.
"I hold that the more helpless a creature, the more entitled it is to protection by man from the cruelty of man." -Gandhi