I have a problem. Well, actually I have many problems but right now I have one particular problem on my mind. Rats! Every night they dig the earth out of my flower pots making a mess and sometimes killing the plants. I had put strong wire netting over some of the pots to prevent their burrowing and then the resourceful little devils chew through the hard plastic/resin pots and get in again. But their presence is not just seen in the garden. While we are meditating in the hall we sometimes hear the pitter patter of little rats’ feet above the ceiling. Last month the hall started to smell and over a few days it got worse and worse. I removed one of the ceiling panels closest to where the smell seemed to be coming from only to have a shower of maggots fall all over me, an experience you would want to avoid if possible. These delightful creatures were feeding on a dead rat. Although it hasn’t happened yet (at least I hope not) rats’ feaces and urine mixed with dust in the ceiling can filter down and be breathed in causing several nasty diseases.
Anyway, something has to be done. Over the last week I have set traps, the type that catch the fellows without harming them. I have caught six so far, but all young ones, which I have subsequently released down on the bank of the Kelang River nearby. But I can’t catch the adults. They are too wily to enter the trap and take the bait. Of course wherever you find people you will find rats. But my problem is made worse than usual because of the open-air restaurant downstairs which means that there is plenty of food scraps for rats to eat.
My rat problem has made me think, and not for the first time, about the universal viability of the First Precept. Is it really possible to uphold the Precept in all circumstances? Could there be situations where it is actually wrong to practice the Precept? Here are a few actual, not hypothetical, scenarios. The Red Squirrel is threatened with extinction in the UK due to the introduction of the more aggressive and disease resistant Grey Squirrel. To save the former they are ‘culling’ (an environmentally friendly way of saying ‘killing’) the latter in certain areas in the hope that the former can recover. There are quite a few other examples of where this sort of thing is being done. As a Buddhist what do you do? Let a species become extinct or do the needful?
You notice that the kids are constantly scratching their bums or itching their heads – the symptoms of head lice and bowel worms. As a caring and responsible parent you shampoo the kids with Louse-Buster or give them a dose of worm medicine. But as a sincere Buddhist what do you do? And now you have discovered that Fido is covered with fleas, so you’re going to have to do something about that too – quite apart from anything else he keeps bringing the fleas into the house. The army of a belligerent power has just taken over the country and you have heard they are rounding up certain ethnics groups and rumor is they are ‘resettling’ them in large pits they have dug in the forests. You are a Buddhist. What do you do? Join or covertly support the resistance, or just keep your head down and hope you survive until others drive the enemy out? You run a Buddhist society in Singapore and…well, you know the situation. Rats multiply at an astonishing rate. What do you do?
The question does not seem to have worried traditional Buddhists too much. They have generally been quite kindly to animals although all have had armies and engaged in wars, some still do; e.g. the ethnic wars in north-east Burma, the insurgency in southern Thailand. I lived in Sri Lanka during much of the vicious civil war there and can never remember the contradiction between Buddhist ethics and the grim reality being discussed in any meaningful way. They seemed to take what I call the Nike approach – Just Do It. But these Burmese, Thai and Sri Lankan examples are the extreme outer edge of the issue. What does a sincere Buddhist who takes the Dhamma seriously do about a rat infestation?