I was reminded of a very complex process I went through when I had cancer in 1997. At that time I was part of the Thich Nhat Hanh community, and, specifically, had taken the five precepts, the first of which is no killing and no condoning of killing. This was the background against which I was presented with the prevalent image of "war" against the cancer. I was deeply troubled, because I had complete clarity that these cells, no matter what else was true of them, were part of me, and were alive. I had a lot of difficulty embracing the idea of killing them.
What helped me were two insights, both of which seem relevant to this essential question.
The first was coming to understand that life depends on killing, at all levels. For example, if our immune system stops killing invading germs we will all die in short order. That realization was shocking, disturbing, and also expansive in terms of my understanding of life.
The second was that cancer is an unsustainable life form. It has no way to survive because of the indefinite growth that consumes more and more resources and will, eventually, kill the person whose cancer it is. My choice, as someone with cancer, was to do all I could so that the cancer would die faster and therefore I would stay alive.
In this moment it appears to me that most of the killing that happens in life is interwoven with the ongoing processes of living, eating, shelter, and other such basics. And then there are times when the option of killing happens as an active, conscious decision. I see the example of my cancer as a metaphor for one of the criteria about when killing is harmonious with life.
In a movie I saw many years ago I remember some people who were asking forgiveness of animals before killing them for food. In that act I saw recognition of the inevitability, as well as understanding of the grief and anguish of the necessity, of killing.
When it comes to killing humans I imagine that process being extraordinarily difficult. I have serious doubt that most of the killing that happens amongst humans receives that quality of immense care and attention.
Subsequent to my cancer experience, I lost my capacity to see “no killing” as a vow I could accept. I haven't yet found an elegant way to come up with a simple and tight set of criteria to use in deciding about killing. Nothing that is useful enough to share with others. It has been evident to me that the hermetic and single-focused “no killing” is in most instances easier to observe than the agonizing process of becoming conscious each time and deciding in the absence of clarity. I dropped out of the community, because I didn’t see that I could find companionship in the excruciating work of disentangling the complexity. So I wrestled by myself. Do I kill the ants that one day swarmed into my house in the many hundreds? I did kill them. Was it necessary? I doubt it. They were not threatening my survival in any way, only my comfort. Was the killing done with compassion? Hardly. I was frantic and shaking all over in primal disgust, and didn’t have any sense of presence of mind while spraying them.
Whatever else is true, I am confident that the more we can all learn and integrate into our body, mind, and soul the options of dialogue and nonviolent resistance the less likely it is that we would find killing the only option in any given circumstance. In addition to courage and love, I know I want to cultivate creativity so as to be able to find the nonviolent options: the magic of dialogue, the energy of nonviolent resistance, and the vision of love that grounds them both. I want all of us to walk beyond the constraining visions we have inherited, so we can truly see the possibility of transcending either/or thinking and develop trust that we can create outcomes that ultimately benefit everyone.