Buddhism, measles and ticks
Posted on March 2nd, 2015
By Shelton A. Gunaratne
Ross Nelson’s letter (“Untethered reality and irony, too,” The Forum, Feb. 18, 2015) saw an irony in the placement of my defense of jack rabbits the previous Sunday just beneath Jack Zaleski’s “furious attack” on “religious nuts” who resisted vaccination for measles.
Zaleski might have designed the layout of his editorial page with a mischievous eye to create confusion in the reader’s mind about compassion toward jack rabbits vis-a-vis the case of those who would not vaccinate their kids against measles.
In my defense of jack rabbits, I put forth the Buddhist approach, which is based on the middle path (magga) of avoiding extremes. Buddhist laity is committed to abide by five precepts in their daily living: abstaining from killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, lying and taking intoxicants. All Abrahamic religions—Judaism, Christianity and Islam–also
observe these precepts because they are part of the Decalogue.
Buddhism does not oppose treatment of an existing illness by use of non-animal derived medicines, because treatment is an act of mercy. In an essay published in the journal Vaccine, Vol. 31 (2013), John D. Grabenstein points out that antibiotics kill microorganisms, yet Buddhism accepts antibiotics because they help people get closer to reaching Enlightenment.
Serious diseases separate the body from the mind. Preventing disease means preventing disharmony within the body. The first written account of variolation describes a Buddhist nun (bhikkhuni) practicing around 1022–1063 CE. She ground scabs taken from a person infected with smallpox (variola) into a powder, and then blew it into the nostrils of a non-immune person to induce immunity. Continuing this tradition, the 14th Dalai Lama participated in poliovirus immunization programs personally.
Contrary to Nelson’s prejudiced view of Buddhism as an impractical doctrine that defends all sentient beings including “mosquitoes, ticks, rats, presumably the measles virus, and a host of other living creatures,” it is more a practical phenomenology that requires everyone to decide the truth of existence through personal experience, not because God or some putative authority said so.
In Buddhism, it’s the intention of the action that matters rather than the action itself. Thus, the karmic effect of getting rid of ticks, mosquitoes and similar pests when they impinge on the survival of other beings is not inconsistent with Buddhist phenomenology.