Renunciation For The Outdoorsman

Posted: 07/20/2010 in Buddhism, Compassion, Precepts, Social

Fishing - Silhouette

One reason I started this blog was to document the various experiences and challenges I have on this new path I have chosen to tread. Here is one challenge that is really messing with my head:

As I study more about Buddhism, I find that there are certain concepts and experiences that are so ingrained in my mind and way of life that it’s difficult to change my view to where it aligns with the precepts. I wanted to discuss one renunciation that has turned into a quandary for me, and that is the act of fishing.

Common sense tells me that fishing would fall into the “cause no harm to living beings” precept. I understand the fact that the very act of baiting a hook, whether with a live worm or plastic baits, in order to entice a fish into biting that hook and impaling itself in the mouth causes harm to a fish, and of course the worm if you use it. Trust me, I get it.

The reason it’s difficult for me to renounce is that I grew up fishing. My father was a man’s man: a carpenter, hunter, fisherman, mechanic, etc. He had quit hunting before I was old enough so I’ve never been hunting, but we still went fishing. It was wonderful out there experiencing nature, spending time just being quiet, hanging with my dad and learning how to be a man. I would give anything to be able to have him back, but those are fond memories, and I’m wavering from my topic. Anyways, when we went camping, we would always go fishing, it’s just part of that lifestyle, they go together like peas and carrots. Now that my friends want to plan a camping trip, I’m wondering what to do. I mean, besides fishing or going for a hike, what else is there to do while camping?

I can’t wait to get out into nature and just experience the fresh air and the retreat of it, but when it comes time for fishing, it’s going to be a challenge. Not just because of the questions that will be asked, but also the fact that the activity of fishing has always been fun for me. I’ve always loved going to sporting goods stores and shopping for fishing gear, organizing my equipment, the challenge of getting the fish to bite, being bummed out after a day of getting skunked, the whole she-bang. It’s so ingrained into my lifestyle, that all of the sudden refusing to do it anymore is boggling my mind. I’ve gone fishing for 30 years. I’ve been a Buddhist for less than one. Some lifestyle changes are going to be hard to swallow, I completely get that. Like becoming a vegetarian, I haven’t quite been able to make that jump yet, but I digress. I’m just talking about fishing here.

What I’m saying is that I do understand that the act of fishing is the act of causing harm to a sentient being and goes against the Buddhist precepts. I just wanted to put fingers to keyboard and document an issue I’m having on my path. If anyone would like to comment about this quandary I’m having, whether it be an insight or an insult, please do.

Picture credit

  1. You are right that the first of the five precepts ( ) is “I undertake the training rule to abstain from taking life”. Where circumstances permit, we should do everything possible to not take life.

    But Buddhists do take lives. The Dalai Lama eats meat because he has a medical condition which requires him to do so. This is not to mention crazy wisdom ( ); some highly realized Tibetan masters of the middle ages were the warlords of their areas.

    The second noble truth identifies craving ( ) as the origin of suffering. We can see this at work in your post above in which your thirst for fishing is causing you to suffer. The remedy is stated in the third noble truth, the exhaustion of your craving, which in the context of the tradition I know best means understanding the nature of craving. Craving arises dependently on causes and conditions and so is empty of substantial existence.

    So, again according to my tradition, if you were to use fishing as a skillful means to try and realize the emptiness of your desire for it then you would be doing yourself great service. Of course, if you were to fish simply to feed your addiction to fishing then you wouldn’t 🙂

    • metalbuddha says:

      Thank you for the response! It’s possible the nature of the craving has to do with the disconnect I feel with my father since he has passed away and we are no longer able to have that manly bonding moment. I sure hope it’s not defined as an addiction! 🙂 I haven’t gone or desired to go in over a year, so it’s not as if I’m craving to get on the water this weekend. I’m not quite sure if I understand what you mean in “Craving arises dependently on causes and conditions and so is empty of substantial existence”, does that have to do with the intent involved? In a way, my conscious intent isn’t to go out and “kill fish” but the act itself, that’s exactly what I would be doing.

      • First let me say that I’m very sorry to hear that your father has passed away. My sincere condolences.

        And yes, I was talking about intent. Craving, desire, thirst, addiction, or however else you want to translate Tanha arises dependently (Pratītyasamutpāda) on causes and conditions and so is empty (Śūnyatā). All phenomena, both mental and physical, dependently arise on causes and conditions and so are empty [of substantial existence]. Understanding that things arise dependently on each other is seeing their emptiness, and seeing their emptiness is to understand that they arise dependently (form is emptiness, emptiness is form).

        There is a big difference between seeing our mind, including our intentions, as empty and not seeing it as such. Our practice is nothing more than trying to understand (realize) the emptiness of our minds and our intentions. Realizing our intentions as empty has a big impact on the karmic consequences of the actions these intentions create.

        Don’t forget that you, your intent, the fish and the fish’s suffering and death are all empty. However, for a person who hasn’t fully realized the emptiness of his mind, the karmic consequences of causing suffering and death are real.

        Can’t you fish and then throw the fish back once you’ve caught it? In this way at least the fish won’t die!

      • metalbuddha says:

        Catch and release, now there is another debate. Some say that causes more harm because it is injuring a fish and letting it suffer longer than catching and keeping it for food. That’s a whole new can of worms.

        I very much appreciate you taking the time to explain this and giving me a different perspective and more to contemplate.

  2. NellaLou says:

    The precepts aren’t iron-clad rules but guides. It seems like fishing is something you do only rarely. If you decided to become a professional sport fisherman that might be a different matter. If you are going to eat your catch at least you are aware where your food is coming from. I don’t see why you can’t enjoy this occasion with your friends.

    As for vegetarianism, it is not a “requirement” for Buddhist practice. Though some like to get on the moral high horse and preach (guilt trip) at others.

    No need to guilt yourself out for either of these. Precepts and perfections (paramitas) are goals of practice and their realization only comes about after a lifetime. A person has to start where they are and work from there. Being hard on yourself for not being the “perfect” Buddhist will only create obstacles in practice.

    Personally I enjoy the occasional salmon steak or plate of fish and chips.

    • metalbuddha says:

      Thank you NellaLou, that makes a lot of sense. I need to get over the guilt I’m being hit with and being so new at all this, I’m trying to digest and decipher it all.

      I enjoy your blog by the way, I have it on my RSS feed. 🙂

  3. Adam says:

    This is something I’ve taken some time to consider as well, and for me, I’ve decided to not engage in fishing anymore. I was always a catch-and-release guy because I can’t stand the taste of fish (never have). There is a ton of fly fishing here in the Northwest that I wanted to sink my teeth into when I moved here from the land of bass/trout in Michigan.

    But then I started thinking about why it is I wanted to basically hurt an animal for sport, and realized I could do without it.

    What else is there to do while camping? Drinking!!!!! and bonfires!!!!

    I’m sure other people do other things, but that’s all I can think of. Oh, and mountain biking.

    • metalbuddha says:

      So you definitely know where I’m coming from, except for eating fish – I really love it. 🙂 After discussing camping with my buddies, that’s when it hit me about the fishing. I haven’t had the opportunity to go since I started practice, nor have I purchased a fishing license with the intent on going, but it wasn’t a conscious decision, just a time issue. I hadn’t really contemplated until now how much something I grew up doing related to the precepts, and all the voices in my head got into a huge debate so I wanted to throw it out there for more insight. I appreciate everyone’s responses!

    • metalbuddha says:

      And oh ya as far as what to do outdoors, I was kinda being a smart-ass. haha

      And ya when it comes to my friends, there will definitely be drinking involved. Wonder how good s’mores goes with Jack and Coke? lol

  4. Frank says:

    No way you can keep all the precepts fully from day one. No way.
    It is my experience that becoming aware of these deeply embedded cravings is just a part of the path. After 20 years of practice, I still run into myself, I still have to ‘stop and think’. And, what is more important, sometimes I still watch myself breaking one or more precepts unconsciously or consciously (when situations dictate or when I’m not wise enough to do the right thing).
    But here’s the on thing I learned: don’t be too harsh on yourself. Don’t judge yourself, don’t make yourself feel guilty. Try to be mindful, try to analyze your thoughts, actions and emotions, but be mild, be gentle, be nice to yourself.
    “If not today, I’ll try again tomorrow” … if said with an honest and sincere heart, this will help you to be nice to yourself.

    Be well. Frank

  5. Frank says:

    By the way, sorry for my crappy English … not my native language 🙂


    • metalbuddha says:

      Hello Frank! Your English is just fine, no worries there. Thank you for the comment, it makes a lot of sense. I’m glad the precepts aren’t “Commandments” like growing up in a christian home having to follow, and then repent for breaking them.

      Much metta!

  6. Renunciation For The Outdoorsman…

    I found your entry interesting do I’ve added a Trackback to it on my weblog :)…

  7. 108zenbooks says:

    Hi! Thanks for having 108ZB on your blog roll. I’ll add you to mine too. Your post touches something I struggled with for a long time. Fly fishing was my all time favourite hobby and after taking the precepts (or maybe it was creeping up before), I had a hard time justifying even catch-&-release. Barbless hooks, no hook flies – tried them all. Used to tie my own flies so I spent a lot of time designing ways to get that feel of fly fishing without actually fishing. There was really no way around the fact that the relationship between me and another living creature was based on our inequity. In the end, I gave it up because it wasn’t the kind of relationship I wanted to have with anything.

    I also looked at what else fly fishing gave me and discovered all the other stuff that goes with it. OK… other than the single malt scotch… hiking, canoeing, photography. Focusing practice of the precepts on the flip side of the renouncing is really useful. It’s more tangible to practice a behaviour that is present than one that is absent anyway. Practice respect for life rather than not taking life, generosity rather than not stealing, honouring boundaries rather than not engaging in inappropriate sexual behaviour, mindful speech rather than not lying, mindful consumption rather than not taking in intoxicants.

    btw, fly fishing for me was deeply connected with someone I cared about. When he passed on, it was hard to imagine giving that up because it was the only link I had to him. But when I did, other connections surfaced.

    Thanks for the thoughtful post.


    • metalbuddha says:

      I really appreciate that perspective on the matter, and clarifies some of my feelings about it. These responses have driven me to really examine my intent of the “craving.” I have realized that since it refers mostly to the connection I had with my father, the issue of impermanence comes up. I can no longer go fishing with him. I have realized that there are other things I can do to honor the memory of what we shared as father and son, like building something out of wood (or watching NASCAR haha), and will not result in the harm to another being. Bottom line is I don’t need to fish, for myself or to keep the connection with my dad. He is always with me, regardless of what I do in life.

      Thanks again to everyone for the wise responses. I appreciate you all.

      With metal metta,

  8. You know, the most important thing is that whatever you decide really comes from inside you.

    If you decide not to fish in order to follow any precept then you are not really renouncing, you are just suppressing, and that will only cause tension and more craving in you.

    The best I could tell you is, keep really thinking and meditating about it and, whenever you are really ready you won’t even have to make a conscious decision to renounce, it will simply happen.

    Great post BTW, one of the most sincere I’ve read about how many of us feel about things we simply don’t feel ready to give up, and the conflicts it can bring within.

    _/|\_ 🙂 \m/

  9. the german guy says:

    also…. now this might sound strange:

    If craving is the source for suffering, then go fishing, since the craving for fulfilling the five precepts will lead to suffering.
    You see, things need to develop by themselves, not under pressure.

    I eat meat, because I cannot eat most vegetables, because of my ulcerated colitis, if I craved to stop eating animals, I woul definitely suffer from it.^^

  10. metalbuddha says:

    Sometimes it’s a vicious circle for sure.

  11. gw says:

    I was a fly fisherman and most of my life until I found dharma a few years ago. As a new student I took a ‘black and white’ stand on everything – so fishing was out along with many other enjoyable activities. It’s humorous now but I must have been real chill to deal with at the time. I understand now it is best to take the thoughtful approach that you have. I have invited many things back into my life but not fishing. Time and again I daydream of some hookless fly invention that would create no suffering but provide the same experience – I usually end up cracking myself up thinking about it. I’m going to try to reconnect with the outdoors this fall, maybe I’ll carry around my fly rod and practice casting with a hookless fly, I don’t know.

    I think Genju expressed it the best , ” There was really no way around the fact that the relationship between me and another living creature was based on our inequity. In the end, I gave it up because it wasn’t the kind of relationship I wanted to have with anything.”


  12. Trying to says:

    GW alluded to a possible answer. I am passionate about steelhead fishing with a fly. My dear friend, and master angler, wrangled with this same dilemma a decade ago–how to continue his passion without harming fish. He experimented and ended up using surface flies with the hook cut off. Fish can rise to the fly-even take it, briefly–then release and return to the water, arguably unharmed. He realized what was important to him was everything other than the fish itself. All of the aspects of the pursuit that prior posters enjoy are still present. In fact, he feels more satisfied with his fishing than ever before.

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