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BUDDHIST IN THE TRENCHES
By Sarah Shifferd
What transpires for the least significant member transpires at once for the whole.
Spring, 1978. Ashland, Wisconsin. The checkout line at Super-Valu. A Nestlé Crunch bar sits exactly at eye level.
Brad Bigelow had one of those at lunch today. He showed us the rice crispies baked right into the chocolate. He explained the miracle whereby, if you ate ten of these and sent in the wrappers, a Superman ring appeared in the mail six weeks later. Brad refused to share or even trade for a small piece of his dessert that day. None of us ever had lunches as cool as his anyway.
I show the candy bar to my mother, my best pleading look on my face. “Mommy?” She looks down. “No. We – we don’t buy those.” Even tighter face. “That’s a bad company. They make babies sick.” She searches my face. “I’ll explain later.”
I gently return the beautiful package to its place and stare at it. The horror of my mother’s words crash against the utter perfection of the object in front of me. Babies cough and drown in the blue banner and convulse beneath the red letters. I turn away, sickened and confused.
Moments later, I am zipped up, mittened, and installed in the back seat of our Dodge Aspen station wagon. As Dad pulls out of the parking lot, Mom turns towards me. Nestlé doesn’t only make candy bars, she explains; they also make food for babies called infant formula. They persuade women in Africa to feed their babies formula instead of breast milk, and that’s wrong.
I argue with her. Maybe formula is better. I wasn’t breastfed and I turned out okay.
She faces me directly. Nestlé tricked the women by giving them formula for free in the beginning. The women’s breast milk dried up and they had no choice but to buy formula they couldn’t afford. Their babies went hungry. And the women didn’t have clean water to mix with the formula, so their babies got sick and some even died. Nestlé knew this, but they kept tricking the women into buying formula anyway.
Mom looks at me hard. “We don’t give our money to companies that hurt people,” she says. “If enough people boycott them, they won’t make as much money. Then maybe they’ll change.”
Mom faces forward and discusses the workday with my father. I watch Lake Superior pass by my window and try to shake the nausea that envelops me. Neatly suited men stand around a large table in a Nestlé blue room, congratulating each other as skinny babies gasp and whimper on a screen behind them. A man turns and offers me a Nestlé Crunch bar. He laughs when I flinch.
Sila [ethics] harmonizes our actions by bringing them into accord with our own true interests, with the well-being of others, and with universal laws. – Bikkhu Bodhi
Spring, 2008. Portland, Oregon. The sidewalk outside Fred Meyer. A young man shouts through a crowd of people getting off a bus.
“Hey! Hey! What makes you so peaceful?” I look up, confused. He pushes closer, his huge curly hair bobbing above the human chaos. He reaches me, out of breath. “Yeah!” He shouts again: “What makes you so peaceful?”
I don’t immediately find a convenient answer, so I search my mental hard drive for “Buddhism, peace, cause of …” I look up at the man and pause. He leans forward, panting slightly. I tell him about ethics, how living according to some basic precepts makes the mind more peaceful. I tell him it’s been true for me, that since I’ve been trying to do it, life has a lot less worry and anxiety and a lot more, well, peace. I explain that harming others disturbs the mind. I say something basic about karma.
He tells me that he steals money from his mother’s purse to buy LSD. He says he’s high right now. I smile and nod. He talks briefly about not stealing from his mother anymore, and gives a monologue on Reality from the POV of an LSD High that takes my breath away. In light of his spontaneous meditation on emptiness, I wonder if anything I’ve said matters – not just to him, but to anyone. He shakes my hand too hard, thanks me profusely, and weaves his way across the street.
It does matter. Ethics, that is. An ethical life doesn’t just make us more peaceful, it doesn’t just eliminate a good 90 percent of our problems, it doesn’t just create the cause for material abundance and health and companionship in future lives, it also helps others. Our ethics deeply and profoundly help others. We deeply and profoundly contribute to the happiness of others when we live an ethical life ourselves. And that is the most important part.
It is necessary to help others in our daily lives. If we find we cannot help others, the least we can do is not harm them. – His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama
Back when the Buddha first taught his disciples to stop killing (even the smallest creature), stealing, lying, engaging in sexual misconduct – basically to stop harming others – life was pretty simple. We didn’t have a global economy. Our clothes didn’t come from halfway around the world. We didn’t have cell phones or cars or plastic bags. Our food was, by default, organic and locally grown by small family farmers. Practicing pure ethics was a lot easier. Everything we needed to think about was right in front of us.
Now, a lot of what we need to think about is far away, in places we have never been. A lot of what we need to think about is right here, but it’s hidden from us. We don’t see the suffering we cause. Often, we don’t even know about it. We don’t know about it, we don’t see it, but we actively support it in the most powerful way possible: our wallets. Every time we pull out our credit card in a store, every time we hit the “Buy Now” button online, every time we choose a restaurant, we affect the happiness of so many other beings. And we affect our own happiness, our own peace of mind, right now and in all our future lives.
The Buddha taught that every action, no matter how small, creates an effect. He taught us to defeat attachment and to cherish others. We are more connected with our fellow sentient beings on Earth than we have ever been before. We have more power to create their happiness, their well-being. And it is so simple. All we have to do is look at what we buy, what we support with our money. Then we can make a conscious decision, with the best motivation possible, so that our every choice counts toward the highest benefit of all beings.
(Postlude: Yes, I did persuade my doting grandfather to buy me a Nestlé Crunch bar later that same summer. While I enjoyed rebelling against my parents, I did not enjoy eating the candy bar. I didn’t eat another one until Nestlé complied with boycotters’ demands for the safe promotion of baby formula in 1984. In 1988, Nestlé reverted to its old ways. I’ve since found much, much better chocolate to eat.)
Sarah Shifferd is a freelance writer, editor and movie subtitler. She lives in the often bizarre and continually enlightening world of Portland, Oregon, U.S.
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