Saturday, June 25, 2011

Skilful Action and Collateral Damage

On a narrow rocky ledge, a beautiful caterpillar is basking in the sun. I see it, and nevertheless crush it with my foot. A shocking act, except that a few feet above, a little boy has crawled under a guard rail and slipped. He has grasped a tree root, but his grip is failing. The only way to reach him is to step on the narrow ledge, exactly where the caterpillar sits. Perhaps if I were a skilful mountaineer, I could have saved the boy without stepping on the caterpillar.
I don’t know the official definition, but I understand ‘skilful action’, in the Buddhist sense, to mean an action that is wise, compassionate and effective, that causes the least harm.
Our skilfulness is acquired over years of practice. Our imperfectly wise and compassionate actions will inevitably cause some collateral damage.
Our perpetual choice is whether to act now out of compassion, or refrain from acting, to avoid causing collateral damage. Perhaps we should wait until we have developed greater skill. We could stew over that question forever.
Surely each choice must be met as it arises, and once made, bravely and directly carried out. If we choose to step on a caterpillar to save a boy, we must do it, and live with the consequences.
This post came out of nagging recriminations over my last post on speciesism. I felt I had been a bull with a mission loose in a china shop, not sure what I had stepped on but pretty sure I must have broken a few things. Old self-doubt crept back wondering if it was worth it.
The skill we develop in our practice is not just skill in our actions, but also skill in making choices. As our wisdom grows, our choices become wiser. As our compassion grows, our actions become braver.
May we accept being where we are, our inevitable mistakes, and be diligent in our practice!

AP Photo/Fraidoon Pooyaa


  1. Your last post was great because it addressed a void. I have heard all of the excuses, especially mindful meat eating, and they are just excuses. You might have hurt some feelings, but it was something that needed to be said.

    There are two things that come to mind when I think about here:

    1) The movie "I, Robot", in which the artificially intelligent robots supposedly always choose the action which results in the least harm, even if that results in collateral harm. For example, the robot saves Will Smith, but does not save the drowning child because the robot can only save one of them, and in the long run Will Smith will save the world.

    2) Trial Lawyering. There are so many parallels here. Excoriating witnesses on the stand to defend a client, the idea of letting the guilty go free in order to protect the wrongfully accused, representing guilty clients in order to protect everyone from the unbridled power of the state and police, etc.

    Excellent post. It's hard to skillful action because we are imperfect beings living in an imperfect world, but all we can do is try.

    -Lola at

  2. Lola, thanks so much for your kind and thoughtful comment! Asimov's three laws of robotics and skilful action - who'd have thought it? Nice to meet another Buddhist trial lawyer!

  3. Awesome post! you are so right about the skill we develop in our practice is the skill in making the choices in our life and as our wisdom grows, our choices become wiser.

  4. Thanks, charity - your organization looks like it does great work!

  5. Always enjoy reading your blog, David.

  6. Thanks, Kathy, you are very kind.

  7. nice poem daddy
    it is awesome and fantastic
    that was good that the caterpillar saved the boy

  8. Thanks Bethy. Caterpillar saved the boy - interesting!

  9. Yes, cultivating wisdom, learning from our past mistakes, not dwelling in regrets or remorse.

    Thank you David, for the depth of your sharings, and gift of your practice.

  10. Marguerite - yes, easier to say than to do! Thank you for your kind words and for your own blog - a real inspiration!


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