Image: The Lucky Coin, David Hiliard, 1995, C-Print, 60 x 24 inche
Image: The Lucky Coin, David Hiliard, 1995, C-Print, 60 x 24 inche

OPINIONS ATTRACT THEIR OWN KIND. Offer one and you get one in return. This can be true of even the most benign assertion. The fact that you like peaches obligates others to declare their preference for oranges. I do this myself frequently enough to wonder what attraction opinions hold for me. And I suspect that having an opinion is a way to stake out a secure and identifying mental territory for myself. Who would I be without an opinion?

When someone’s giving his view of things, I’ve caught myself taking a position before he’s even finished laying out his point. It’s a contagious sort of reaction that’s greatly magnified when an opinion concerns the moral right or wrong of something. Judgments on right and wrong are a nearly irresistible enticement to pick sides. And that’s exactly why the old Zen masters warned against becoming a person of right and wrong. It isn’t that the masters were indifferent to questions of ethics, but for them ethical conduct went beyond simply taking the prescribed right side. For these masters, the source of ethical conduct is found in the way things are, circumstance itself: unfiltered immediate reality reveals what is needed.

I’m sure you can appreciate how contrary this is to traditional ethics, even the more traditional Buddhist ethics. When I first encountered this teaching in Zen, I simply couldn’t get it at first. Among the farm people where I grew up you were expected to know right from wrong. And the right and wrong you were expected to know was of a consistent sort that could be recited, chapter and verse, when the occasion required it. Those who couldn’t do so were disparaged as ones who “don’t know right from wrong.” That’s how traditional ethics works: conduct is based on reference to fixed principles. But this approach is limited, because any fixed ethical principle is a generalization, while events are specific. A precept such as “Do not kill,” “Do not steal,” or “Do not lie” applies to a respective category of human behavior. Since an actual event isn’t a category, ethical precepts serve us best not as an immediate dictate of behavior but as an instrument of inquiry. Daishin Morgan of the Soto Order of Buddhist Contemplatives taught that the purpose of the precepts is “to guide us beyond their form in a legalistic sense to the spirit that lies behind them.” The precepts are something to live with rather than live by, and living with the Zen precepts is ultimately humbling, softening our hearts to accept our own imperfections and deepening our resolve to live without harm.

If I want to see clearly what’s happening now, I must put aside external points of reference. What’s happening now is neither what happened before nor what I might hypothetically imagine happening in the future. As Erich Fromm said, “Contact is the perception of differences.” While an ethical generalization is derived from perceived similarity, a discrete event is made specific by virtue of difference. If an event seems familiar, it’s a likely lapse in attention that makes it so. The Chinese Ch’an masters saw that the most unassailable right or wrong is also the most likely to lure us away from present reality, substituting in its stead a familiar and comforting perception. All of us on the neighboring farms, children and adults, gave homage to the ancient ethic of not killing. “Do not kill” was understood among us as an undeniable good urging us to preserve life. But when a farm cat I’d raised from infancy dragged herself onto the porch steps, its hindquarters and legs crushed beyond saving, I put her to death. And only afterward did I weep with regret at the life I’d brought to an end.

Once, my mother on her way out the door to a women’s tea asked me how I liked a hat she’d bought for the occasion. I thought the hat was perfectly horrid. She was such a beautiful woman. It seemed a shame to let her go looking that way, but I lied and told her the hat was lovely. Was I wrong to do so? I certainly broke the literal precept. But I would have violated the promptings of a sympathetic heart had I told her the truth. The living moment exposes the limits of principled behavior. Yet it’s also true that Buddhism has developed and stated certain ethical principles. The very first teachings of the enlightened Gautama included the teachings of Right Speech, Right Action, and Right Livelihood. And from these first teachings have been derived a series of stated precepts that Zen Buddhists accept and practice to the best of their ability. Most of these precepts will seem indistinguishable from the ethical principles of other religious and philosophical systems. Zen Buddhists formally vow to take up the way of not killing, not stealing, not speaking falsely, and so on, and these precepts combine to support the overriding Buddhist ethic of noninjury.

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