abbot_laugh_smallPRECEPTS AS PRESCRIPTION - Part 1

The great teachings of Buddhism fall into two main categories: description and prescription. Many of the ancient texts and utterances of the Ancestors are descriptions of reality, such as Suzuki Roshi's "Things as it is" or Matsuoka Roshi's "Round and rolling, slippery and slick." It is difficult to impossible to apply these directly to our practice, as they reflect a view that follows from insight. Many misunderstandings are of this nature, where we may think that things as it is means things as they are, and therefore the right understanding is that which we already have. But things as it is means things as they really are, not as we suppose them to be from our everyday perception and conception. When things as they are fall apart through meditation, they can be reconstituted as "Things as it is."

Other teachings, such as the Precepts, are prescriptions for practice, though they may, by implication, hint at a description of reality. So the Ten Grave Precepts are often represented, in the ceremonies of receiving Precepts (J. jukai), as the precepts of buddhas and bodhisattvas, a description of the natural way of life of an enlightened being. Yet they are simultaneously prescriptions for our practice in all aspects of daily life. It is understood that all such teachings are provisional, and that when they reach fruition, will no longer be prescriptions for our personal practice, but will describe our reality.

Another way to look at Precepts is to understand that everyone already has received certain precepts—from their parents, peers, teachers and society at large. These may be unconscious, but people still act, and see their world, based on them. For example, everyone, by the time s/he reaches the age of reason, has a pretty complete set of cultural precepts, about killing, lying, stealing, et cetera. Receiving the Precepts of Buddhism may raise these subliminal ones to consciousness for the first time, by presenting, as they do, an alternative view.

Further, all larger associations of human beings behave according to precepts, implicit or explicit. The medical profession, for example, shares the first Precept "Do no harm." Business and industry operate based on their own precepts, as do governments and other institutions, such as educational systems. Entire cultures subscribe to precepts, whether their members know it or not. So it may be illuminating to look at American culture in the context of Buddhist Precepts.

The first, do no harm, is the mother of all Precepts. All other Precepts are essentially specific case examples of this one general principle. The difficulty comes when we realize that we cannot "do no harm" in any absolute sense of the phrase. In some situations, avoiding harm to one person may involve harming another person, as in the Jataka tale of Buddha killing a man who was killing others. Just to exist is to do harm, in the sense of consuming other living beings. But without attempting to resolve all the contradictions, we may be able to usefully look at the broad-brush picture. It raises more questions than it provides answers, which is very Zen.

Since it has been suggested that these dharma bytes be more of a bite and less of a meal, in this installment I will comment briefly on only the first five of the Grave Precepts, those given to Soto Zen Initiates.

Affirm life—do not kill is a difficult one, probably why it comes first. How does the current culture look, when held up to the light of this prescription? Where does the exercise of war, the factory farming of livestock, fit in? How do the abortion and end-of-life issues find resolution? How about hunger, ethnic cleansing and natural disasters, on the global scale? Why do we once again find ourselves cauterizing the gaping wound that is Haiti, decades of time for prevention having slid by? This is not a rant—I'm just asking.

Be giving—do not take what is not freely given seems more obvious, but when we look at what has happened to the livelihood of working Americans, the daily outrage and lack thereof, political posturing and finger-pointing, e.g. over Wall Street running roughshod over Main Street, we have to wonder: Are those profits freely given?

Speaking of profits, Google just reported quarterly earnings of 2 billion dollars, a new record for one quarter. That is twice as much as so far invested in the recovery efforts in Haiti by several entire countries (including poverty-stricken Liberia, which, poignantly, could only spare around 50 thousand dollars). Nation states have always been seen in Buddhism as empty—conceptual projections of the non-existent self. But now, international corporations are clearly eclipsing what once were the economic powers and governmental entities of the world.

Accelerating the trend in America, with the recent 5-4 ruling of the Supreme Court, corporations now have more-than-equal rights than actual citizens to invest in the political process. Given their massive reserves of capital (now recognized as "free speech"), many pundits predict that this will surely further erode the influence of government by, for, and of, the people.

Again we have to ask: Are these rights, and the power that they confer, freely given? If so, by whom, to whom—and on behalf of whom?

Honor the body—do not engage in sexual misconduct again seems obvious, but if you surf the Internet you will find that not in your wildest dreams could you come up with so many variations on the theme of sexual conduct. And that is only in the human species! Which of these behaviors constitute misconduct? When is sexual conduct not misconduct? Some would suggest that when it leads to procreation, or when it is sanctified by marriage, it's OK. Would it were so simple.

This may not be so much a matter of defining misconduct as it is an exercise in the right conduct side of the Noble Eightfold Path (which amounts to another set of prescriptions for practice). Therein we find speech, action, and livelihood as three dimensions of ethical conduct. It seems transparent that at bare minimum, right conduct would at least be internally consistent. But when we look unflinchingly at our fellow Americans (and in the mirror), especially at the purveyors of ethics and morality in the American culture, we see the opposite. Speech often has little or nothing to do with action or livelihood, other than to deflect attention or throw up smokescreens. We talk the talk but do not walk the walk. We don't do what we say.

At least if we were honest and forthcoming about what are called sexual indiscretions, they would not be. It is understandable why many of the Ancestors of Buddhism practiced celibacy. It is so much simpler.

Manifest truth—do not speak falsely is directly related to the point about speech and action. But when we look at the culture, where do we see the truth being spoken, e.g. to power, as the popular expression has it? Who knows the truth, let alone is able to speak it? Is it actually possible to not speak falsely? In saying anything about anything, one necessarily leaves out the rest of the story. Is a partial truth still true?

It is like a snapshot. The camera excludes infinitely more than it can include, in the picture. Same for a written piece, such as this, or an editorial in the newspaper (a printed document that people used to have delivered to their doorstep, or pick up at what was called a "newsstand"). The window is much too small to make room for the whole truth.

This is why Buddha often fell back on the expedient mean of saying nothing. It was called his "golden silence," expressing the truth far more eloquently and accurately than all the 80,000 sutras combined.

Proceed clearly—do not cloud the mind with intoxicants also seems pretty cut and dried. We are either sober or we are not. But Master Dogen pointed out that when we take the tonsure (shave the head) we are already intoxicated.

When we look at our culture (and ourselves in it) we see that everyone is already intoxicated, by different intoxicants. There are the usual suspects, so-called identified addictive substances, such as alcohol and drugs. People who imbibe are seen as inferior to the sober citizens who are on the straight and narrow. It is less obvious that they, the latter, are also intoxicated—by power, fame and fortune, status and prestige, comfort, a higher standard of living, a sense of superiority over others—reinforced by all the above, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera, as the King of Siam (no piker at living large) would intone at this point in the dissertation.

Tellingly, the definition of an addictive substance (google AMA) includes that if withdrawn from the addict, it occasions a "significant degree of discomfort." Try that with air, water, food, warmth, shelter, et cetera... Significant, all right—in about five minutes without air, days without water, weeks without food.

In other words, we are addicted to life. We are all addicts, and that should give us pause in looking down upon those pitiful, identified addicts, who simply pile another addition on top of what is already addiction. It might also help if professionals in the business of "treating" addicts (usually unsuccessfully) were to recognize this fact. Compassion means suffer with, together.

As to proceeding clearly, Zen meditation is a form of deep and thorough withdrawal. It is a process of completely sobering up, in the midst of addiction.

Personally, I resent the pejorative use of "cloud," my dharma name. Mind is a cloud.

Next time we will take a look at the latter five Precepts, those reserved for Zaike Tokudo. If you would like to respond and comment, I would like to hear from you: Just what kind of utopia you feel might be possible, based on the precepts and prescripts of Buddhism?


Dharma Byte from the Abbot


This, the second precept of Buddhism, it seems to me, goes to the heart of the matter of several issues that are currently white-hot in politics in America, and by extension around the glove—owing to the outsized and, in some parts, unwelcome—influence of the US culture on that of other peoples. These issues—the fair and equitable distribution of wealth, universal access to adequate health care, the whole litany—are now very tired and wearing, but are fundamental to society and bear repetition if they are ever to be resolved to any degree of general satisfaction. They are also fundamental to the establishment and maintenance of true community, or harmony, which in Buddhism is called sangha, one of the venerated Three Treasures, along with Dharma and Buddha. Aspiring to a life of Zen of Buddhism implies the protection and nurturing of these three precious jewels.

In what follows, I am going to wade into the swamp of politics for the sake of finding the lotus growing there. My teacher, Matsuoka-roshi, did not shy from taking up the white-hot political issues of the time, such as Vietnam and racial injustice, and he did not shrink from stating his position in such a way that there could be no doubt as to where he stood. He was not afraid to name names and declare that these individuals, not impersonal policies, were at fault and in violation of basic Buddhist principles of compassion and community. (For example read the section on “Zen Ethics and Virtue” in The Kyosaku, available at

Whatever one’s politics, it is difficult to understand, let alone rationalize or justify, the extreme disparities we witness—the concentration of wealth in an extreme minority—and the resultant inability for many of our greater community to actualize the inalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness codified in the papers which constitute the founding documents, and mission, of this nation. Expanding one’s view to include other nation states and local quasi-states around the globe, one sees variations on the same theme of one extreme or another. Some see this as God’s will. Some on one end of the political spectrum attempt to explain this based on individual responsibility and actions which have consequences, the difference in choices that individuals make during their lifetime, natural differences to be expected in a meritocracy. On the other extreme, some attribute it to simple greed and avarice, which can amount to a form of violating Precepts against speaking ill of others, and praising oneself at the expense of others. Some foster a caste system of inherited position and privilege, which is essentially to assert that benefits (or inequities) resulting from the choices of one’s ancestors are legitimately one’s birthright. When this is taken to the extreme of viewing one’s good fortune and the misfortune of others as “karma”—and therefore okay—this is a gross corruption of Buddhism.

Whatever your view of the politics of Michael Moore—and it seems one either hates him or loves him—he has inserted himself and his viewpoint squarely into the center of these debates through the medium of film. Some categorize his works as documentaries, others consider them blatant propaganda.

In any case, they and current opinion columns provide a good springboard for the point I am trying to make here, which is bigger and broader than even these issues, and at the same time, extremely personal. It goes to the choices that we—you and I—make as Buddhists. So please bear with me. This is not intended as a political screed, but more as a “teachable moment.” Zen is not really apolitical, but, I would say, tends to regard politics with a jaundiced eye. Something about an ox being gored, I think, rather than tamed. So into the swamp:

While attending Michael Moore’s latest film, “Capitalism: A Love Affair,” about halfway through, the sound went out. After clapping and yelling “Sound!” a few times to no avail, we went to the ticket counter and demanded a refund, and left (but not in a huff). It didn’t really ruin the experience for us—unlike a comedy or a drama or mystery, Mr. Moore’s narrative did not give away the punch line, climactic scene, or whodunit—but we didn’t want to stick around and watch it from the beginning later that afternoon.

One assertion that he makes early in the film struck, and stuck with, me, startling in its directness and obviousness, once so stated: “Capitalism is diametrically opposed to Christianity and all the other major world religions, including Buddhism,” to paraphrase. The film includes the director’s trademark clips of the suffering of ordinary folks (e.g. through actual foreclosures), and the undeserved inequality that are consequences, if unintended, of capitalism run amok. This is his position and in America he has a right to say so.

In defense of capitalism with a small “c,” one might mention the small loans programs in India and other Third World countries which seem to kick-start the process of achieving those inalienable rights mentioned above. Where does it gang agley?

From some of the historical clips shown in the film praising its glories, one might go further and say that Capitalism is a religion, for some—that it can become a competing philosophy at least—but clearly based on different tenets than other religions. For example, the Golden Rule of Christianity, “Do unto others as you would have them do to you,” is turned completely on its head in “Them that has the gold makes the rules.” In Buddhism, the precept in the title, along with “Share generously—Do not spare the Dharma assets” would be similarly contravened by such doctrines as “greed is good” and “might makes right.”

Mr. Moore goes on to quote some of the tenets stated in the Constitution, ruminating that they begin to sound a lot like “that other (Commun)ism.” But, at least up to the point that the sound died, he does not come out explicitly in favor of one system over another, as such, just questioning in such a say that implies his view, another trademark touch that allows the audience to draw its own conclusion, rather than blatantly stating it. Good propaganda technique.

Here I would like to insert an aside that I think might characterize Buddhism’s or Zen’s philosophy of politics and governance. It is essentially that no system really works on its own, to state the obvious. It has to be accepted by and implemented through the people. No system can guarantee justice or fairness as long as the people are unjust and unfair. In other words, government—of the people, by the people, and for the people—is dependent on the people for its success. If the people are selfish, greedy, and just bad to the bone, no system of governance, however brilliant and well-designed, is going to work. People will find a way to subvert the most utopian of ideals to their nefarious ends.

Buddhism this posits that the real and only revolution is possible only on an individual level. People have to change for government to change. This does not necessarily amount to a rejection of society as it is, just a healthy recognition that it is subject to the same attributes of dukkha as the rest of existence—unsatisfactoriness, impermanence, insubstantiality, and imperfection—the whole catastrophe. Within this context, the practice of compassion, “suffering with,” is the only reasonable and politically workable response to an imperfect situation.

This relates to the point of a column in the New York Times (Thursday October 8, 2009)—on the subject of Moore’s last film, health care—by Nicholas D. Kristof: Let Congress Go Without Insurance. Mr. Kristof he suggests that if Congress once again fails to provide some form of health insurance for all the citizens of the US, it should give up its own claim to the finest health insurance available (he proposes modestly that only 15 percent lose coverage completely, 8 percent consigned to inadequate coverage—selected randomly and reflecting the national averages). Ours is the only first world country that doesn’t offer this, and never has, as he quotes:

In January 1917, Progressive Magazine wrote: “At present the United States has the unenviable distinction of being the only great industrial nation without universal health insurance.” More than 90 years later, we still have that distinction.

Mr. Kristof reports that as long ago as the Theodore Roosevelt and Richard Nixon administrations and as recently as the Clinton administration in 1993, 16 years ago, such efforts have failed to get anything passed in Congress. By his calculation if another 16 years transpire, another 700,000 deaths will occur attributable to a lack of health insurance: “That’s more Americans than died in World War I, World War II, Korea, Vietnam and Iraq combined.”

Kristof concludes: “At root, universal health care is not an economic or technical question [as it has been debated] but a moral one.” This is where this issue, and the effects of unbridled Capitalism, come together in the second Zen Buddhist precept, “Be giving—Do not take what is not freely given.” In Zen, this is not so much a moral obiter dictum as a statement of what is the actual condition of our existence. One cannot actually take anything, freely given or not. What is is, and we can neither add to, nor subtract from, it. We can only rearrange it temporarily.

It is not always clear that we are not taking what is not freely given. For example, as I pointed out in a recent dharma discussion, we are all breathing in the air, apparently freely given, sitting in the zendo. However, if the zendo were to be sealed off, with no incoming air, suddenly all present would be competing for the limited oxygen that would be available in what air remained. Soon, the air that I breathe would be taking from the others in the room, and their breath would be consuming the oxygen that I need to survive.

This is an extreme and unlikely case, but stranger things have happened. The point is that unless we “investigate thoroughly in practice”—to borrow Master Dogen’s phrase—we do not really see the deeper meaning of the Precepts. In this way, and in this context, we do not clearly understand the meaning of economics and its worst-case outcome, rampant greed and avarice.

While wealth itself cannot be inherently evil, it certainly can lead to abuse of the precepts of most religions. Much like intoxication, which in itself is not inherently evil (though certainly a poison if ingested in great enough quantity—thus “toxic”), indulging oneself in chemical intoxication can and usually does lead to the violation of other Precepts. Likewise, wealth, fame, power, and the other intangible intoxicants by definition lead to a change in one’s world view, and not along the lines recommended by the Noble Eightfold Path. In fact, one’s world view is more likely to become downright ignoble as good fortune enables and empowers one’s worst angels as well as one’s best. Jekyll and Hyde reside in all of us.

So one measure—if any such exists—of what the accumulation of vast wealth actually means, is what one does with it. Someone once said that Buddhism is concerned with the understanding of meaning. So it is important that we penetrate to the deeper, personal level of meaning of the accumulation of wealth, rather than its political dimension. We witness great exertion on the part of Bill Gates and Warren Buffet to “do good” with their vast incomes, while a few others are striving to join their rarefied billionaire club, and many others are struggling just to make ends meet.

Here’s a koan for you: What would you do with the money if you won the lottery? And how would it relate to or reflect your Buddhist principles? How does one “Do no harm” with great wealth?

The Tao te Ching contains an interesting and related question, if memory serves: “Which is more destructive — success  or failure?” Just as the meaning and application of a specific precept, such as that on stealing, can change dramatically with a dramatic change in circumstance—such as precipitously diminishing resources (e.g. of air in the example above)—so can one’s Buddhism be challenged by what many would regard as a positive, life-changing event, such as winning the lottery.

“Follow the money” is an expression often used to indicate how to understand the machinations of the powers that be. If you want to understand the meaning and import of the hundreds of millions of dollars going to executives in the finance industry, for example, follow the money—watch what they do with it.

Are they taking what is not freely given? If so, from whom? Jesus is said to have said something like, “Their reward is with them.” But of course, he was reportedly promising a greater reward in heaven. Zen doesn’t. Where is our just reward? Are we taking what is not freely given? From whom? How do we repay our debt?

A thief may consider something insufficiently protected as “freely given.” A Buddhist considers everything as not belonging to anyone. These seem similar, but are diametrically opposed in action. The thief thinks that s/he can actually take something. The Buddhist knows that s/he can only give anything and everything just as it is to all the Buddhas of the universe. Everything is freely given. But we cannot take it.