If you’re looking to rest your practice on anything (other than Nothing), you can’t do better than Buddhism’s three essentials: meditation (dhyana), wisdom (prajna), and morality (shila)—the three-legged stool of practice. The meditation component has always been well covered in Western Buddhism. Probably for most practitioners in the Americas and Europe it’s become all but synonymous with practice. And the promise of prajna, the transcendental wisdom revealed through awakening, has stirred the minds of practitioners ever since Shakyamuni looked up at the morning star from beneath the Bodhi tree. But upright conduct has never gotten equal attention in Western practice.
Ultimately, morality, wisdom, and meditation are equally vital aspects of the Way that mutually condition one another. Awakening reveals the no-thingness of things—that no thing is apart from all other things. To realize truly that there is only this nature, with no “other” outside us, is to naturally want to refrain from causing harm, just as we refrain from doing harm to one of our own limbs or eyes. The Ten Cardinal Precepts then articulate how to live up to this vision of things as they are—as one. Conversely, by upholding the precepts even before awakening, we are allowing the afflictions that obstruct that experience to loosen and dissolve. And since the precepts collectively may be seen as a description of enlightened conduct, in harmonizing with them we are actualizing our buddhanature.
Upholding the precepts can’t be called the sexiest of practices. Refraining from moral reflections—in beginners, especially—is often symptomatic of an immature practice driven by a grasping mind. But to minimize the importance of the precepts reveals a poor understanding of them.
To disregard the precepts may also suggest a reaction to the moralism at the heart of our American culture, with its deeply-rooted Puritanical strain. We are a people preoccupied with good and evil. Just ask our European friends, or count our TV shows that revolve around it, or notice the showy religiosity in our politics. But the vocabulary of good and evil is a cultural accretion we don’t need. The dharma offers a more basic judgment of conduct—whether it causes harm or not. That’s really the only measure we need. Moralistic concerns are superfluous.
Buddhist shila is not really a matter of being “good.” It’s not about being anything—any
thing. That would imply a fixed self that either is something or isn’t something. Rather, sila rests on action. This is how Aristotle saw morality—as praxis, or doing, as distinguished from theory. The praxis of the precepts is the work of refraining from acting, speaking, or thinking in such a way as to cause harm. In Buddhist ethics, the language of good and bad just muddies the water.
Even understanding shila simply in terms of causation, or karma, without the freight of right and wrong, doesn’t make a moral dilemma easier to resolve. Each precept may be interpreted according to various degrees of strictness. For example, we may take the third of the Ten Cardinal Precepts, not to misuse sexuality, as prohibiting merely adultery and sexual intercourse with a mentally disabled or underage person, or, more strictly, as referring to any form of “using or abusing” one’s partner. Applying the strictest interpretation to the second precept, not to take what is not given, would have us breaking it when we make consumer choices that implicate us in the misappropriation of the world’s resources. Even talking around the truth may be seen, from the most stringent view, as a violation of the fourth precept, “I resolve not to lie.”
No realm of life is potentially more complex than that of ethics. It involves a consensus of prohibited conduct that may be universal and timeless (such as stealing), but otherwise is culturally constructed. In fact, the consensus even within one milieu can change over time. We see how ideas about harmful behavior have shifted with respect to marijuana use, same-sex marriage, and abortion. Moreover, the precepts in Mahayana Buddhism may be interpreted from different perspectives. An action that violates the wording of a precept may actually cause less suffering, overall, than it would when considered in a broader context. Thus, with respect to the first of the Ten Cardinal Precepts, “I resolve not to kill,” shooting a rabid dog could well be ethically more responsible than letting it run amok, if the choice was between the life of a child and that of the dog.
From a third perspective, that of essential nature, killing, death, and karma are altogether devoid of meaning. This is the realm of emptiness, which is unscored by any such discriminations even as it gives birth to them—indeed, to all phenomena. It was from this absolute level that Bodhidharma, the founder of Zen, declared with respect to the first precept:
Self nature is inconceivably wondrous.
In the everlasting dharma, Not giving rise to the notion of extinction Is called the precept of refraining from taking life.
Although this world of emptiness informs everything, it is only one side of the twofold dharma. Coexistent with it is the conventional realm we’re all groping our way through together, every day. At this level, our choices in conduct do indeed matter, literally—they materialize in consequences. The precepts can’t spell out every answer for us, but with them we need not be left floundering with our subjective views; we don’t need to reinvent the dharma wheel. It’s still greed, anger, and delusion, in their myriad variants, that we’re working with, and in the precepts we’ve inherited a map to help us navigate this long and perilous waterway of practice. On this map you can almost see the glyphs of fearsome marine monsters next to the warning signs: “Don’t go here.” Or “Drift into these waters at your own peril.”
The essentially practical nature of shila is revealed in a common English translation of the original Pali wording. Each precept begins, “I undertake the training rule to abstain from….” No talk of principles here, much less of good and evil. In Buddhist texts,
shila is often defined as “discipline”—and a discipline it surely is. In dharma practice, we’re swimming upstream against the current of habitual consciousness (to use a metaphor of the Buddha’s), and these forces of mental grasping and dispersion just keep coming. To hold our own against them requires discipline in body, speech, and mind, working—consciously and every day—with our egotistic impulses. This requires noticing those impulses as they arise— something easier said than done. But through daily meditation over long enough time we do manage to catch them sooner and sooner. Only then do we have a choice as to whether to act on the impulse or not.
Ah, but impulses can be so tantalizing! When temptation arises, how do you avoid breaking a precept—which by definition would invite suffering? A traditional Zen method would be to marshal one’s attention and simply cut through the images and thoughts that fuel such an impulse. Another classic approach would be to inquire deeply into the nature of the passion in order to see through it—“What
is this, really?” But these and other established methods may not always work, especially in high-stakes situations involving one of the Grave Precepts (the first five of the Ten Cardinal Precepts).
Let’s suppose that a married practitioner was feeling increasingly attracted to another woman, and asked for advice on how to proceed—or not. He could go outside orthodox Zen methods and enlist his imagination, pausing to visualize the pain it would cause if the transgression came to light (as such things usually do). He could start with the hurt and anger in his wife’s face and body, and that of his children, and maybe of his parents and other family members, and the sleepless nights they would go through, and, when the news reached those in his sangha and workplace and neighborhood, the widespread disappointment in him that would unfold, and the pain that would roll back to his paramour, not to mention to the cheater himself.
If we find ourself mentally playing out such painful scenarios more than infrequently, chances are we’re either getting obsessive about morality or living too close to the edge. But the same exercise can be deployed when on the verge of breaking any of the other precepts (and the visualization will bite all the more if charged with the memory of having stumbled in the same way before). What’s required is some space in which to choose intelligently, a little daylight between the impulse and the action. When we’re about to have one too many drinks (the fifth precept), we need to claim at least a moment of our inherent awareness to reflect on the troubles that may ensue from our state of intoxication—the stupid, hurtful things we may blurt out, the reckless pleasures that may follow and wreak havoc in our life, and the physical harm we may cause others as well as ourselves, especially if we give way to the temptation to drive under the influence. When we’re about to lash out at someone in anger (ninth precept), we need at least a fraction of a second in which to imagine just how destructive our words or action may prove to be. When we’re about to speak of the faults of others (sixth precept), we need a bit of space before doing so, in which to picture the damage our words may cause to the reputation of the person and the waves of discord that may spread through the sangha and larger community. You don’t have to be a sociopath to mentally run through these scenarios and still charge straight ahead; that’s how powerful the blind passions are—and why we call them “blind.” But any tool can help in avoiding unnecessary suffering.
Besides imagining the misery we risk by breaking a precept, another way to handle the impulses that bind us to suffering is through cognitive intervention. If we’re behind the wheel and another driver cuts us off, leans on his horn, or otherwise drives provocatively, we can construct a narrative to explain his aggressiveness: “He’s late for something, and probably not for the first time. He’s desperate to get there, and you know yourself what that’s like!” The same line of creative speculation works in the face of any form of hostility: “She may have just lost her job,” or “He just had a fight with his wife.” These kinds of stories, even if fanciful, offer us some breathing room, interrupting the reaction chain that binds us to suffering.
When struggling with our impulses, we can also draw from the “wisdom and warmth of the sangha.” Just as a spiritual community will have to share in the consequences of an individual’s misconduct, it can prevent his missteps from occurring in the first place. As members of the sangha we have dharma talks and private meetings with teachers to turn to, as well as the informal guidance of others. Or, if the damage is already done, the sangha can offer its collective resources in helping the individual to accept responsibility for his actions and repent them, and thus move on and not repeat them.
Until we have the insight to see through our habit forces as they arise—to see them as the empty mental formations they are—our best ally is the self-restraint outlined in the precepts. We have to discard the idea of Buddhist morality as rules suited just to the prim and proper; they’re for all of us, and they take strength to uphold. In days gone by, self-denial—the denial of one’s selfish desires or pleasures—was held in high esteem. What’s more, it was seen as a particularly manly asset (dubious though that generalization might be). It’s ironic, then, that it’s nearly always men who are behind the most spectacular cases of inveterate misconduct today, in Buddhist communities and public life as a whole.
What drives some teachers to repeatedly put their own appetites ahead of their students’ welfare? It’s not just the biological imperative, because that wiring is shared by everyone carrying the Y chromosome. Another contributing factor may be an elevated craving for novelty (here, in sexual partners), which is now widely regarded to have a genetic component. But these considerations aside, we have to suspect that repeat offenders have some hole within them that they are trying compulsively to fill, an aching sense of incompleteness that drives them to act against their students’ interests and their own better nature.
To see persistent misconduct on the part of a teacher as the failings of the wounded healer may help us understand and even forgive him for it, but the behavior can’t be excused. Too many people get hurt. Many years ago, some of us were pressing a teacher about his series of sexual involvements with his students, finally prompting this jaunty retort from him: “You know, just because you’re enlightened doesn’t mean you’re dead below the waist.” Message: if you have a healthy libido, you can be excused for acting on your urges. Worst of all is when such teachers let themselves be referred to as Zen “masters.” No one deserves such a title until having earned it through long-term self-mastery.
Historically, it was the opposite. The expectation in most spiritual traditions was that moral self-containment showed potency, evidence that you’d been able to conquer your common appetites. (Another irony: As women watch men in positions of authority self-destruct, they may reflect with bemusement on the old myth of woman as the temptress, helpless against her own innate sexual longings.) To be sure, behavioral rectitude in itself doesn’t prove any special strength of character; there can be other, less-than-laudable factors at work, including a neurotic attachment to piousness. But anyone who has struggled not to break a precept knows that it takes will power—that is, “won’t” power.
Just as Buddhist shila refers not to some imaginary static state of virtue but to an ongoing test of volition, so too is this true of enlightenment. Since there is no abiding personhood in any of us, rather than speaking of an enlightened person, let’s speak of enlightened
conduct. This distinction is not merely semantic but has profound implications for practice. What use is there in calling someone “enlightened” if that label is being betrayed through bad behavior? So what if the person once (or twice, or more) had an awakening if his or her manner of living belies that experience?
A corrupt teacher or other senior practitioner who repeatedly flouts the precepts either doesn’t care about the damage being inflicted or justifies it as the privilege of one who lives in a higher realm, one in which the nuisance issues of moral restraint and personal responsibility don’t apply. Wasn’t this delusion exposed in the story of Hyakujo, in the second koan in the
Mumonkan? We can’t magically remove ourselves from the world of phenomena and the order that enfolds it—the law of causation. Some teachers rationalize egoistic behavior by conveying (usually implicitly) that since they abide now in the “unconditioned,” they are beyond conventional morality. They may have seen, even deeply, that “form is only emptiness,” but they couldn’t have integrated that seeing into the so-called conditioned world (as if the two were separate). They miss the other half—that emptiness is only form.
Ultimately, Buddhist “morality” is a no-morality. It represents a shifting mental structure that we understand only to the degree that we grasp its essential formlessness. Yet though it has no nature of its own, this no-nature is not devoid of properties and causal effects. Upholding the precepts is simply a way of moving through life without causing unnecessary pain. There is a saying in our tradition: “Zen is above morality, but morality is not below Zen.”
Bodhin Kjolhede (pronounced COAL-heed) was ordained by Roshi Philip Kapleau in 1976 and became his dharma successor and abbot of Rochester Zen Center in 1987. He leads Zen retreats at Chapin Mill Retreat Center.
Artwork by Sol Lewitt, “Detail of a Sphere Lit From the Top, Four Sides, and All Their Combinations” and “A Sphere Lit From the Top, Four Sides, and All Their Combinations (Composite), 2004, Inkjet print, 24 x 36 inches