From Thought to Destiny: To Avoid Evil

Uposatha Teaching: Full Moon, August 25, 2010.

Index to Current Series
Thought – Act – Habit – Character – Destiny”

This mind of mine went formerly wandering about as it liked, as it listed, as it pleased; but I shall now hold it in thoroughly, as the rider who holds the hook holds in the furious elephant. Dhammapada, 326.

Last week I introduced the three ethical systems that inform our actions in Buddhism, Avoiding Evil, Doing Good and Purifying the Mind. This week I discuss the first of these in detail, which is in fact a variety of systems of vows or precepts.

Precepts take the form of rules or regulations. Examples are “Do not kill living things,”Do not tell a falsehood. There are systems of five, eight, nine and ten precepts. The full set of monastics vows runs into the hundreds of precepts. Almost always stated as abstentions, precepts are valuable for their clarity in stating minimal standards of physical conduct. In Buddhism they are almost always a matter of vow rather than imposed by an outside authority such as the Commandments that Moses brought down from the mountain as a gift from God, or traffic laws imposed under threat of fine. Exceptions might be temple rules like, “Take your shoes off before entering.”

Precepts can inform important karmic decisions, like whether or not to murder your annoying neighbor, or simply provide standards to ensure harmonious relations, much like many traffic laws, or simply to express some point of etiquette, like always bowing to the Buddha when entering a temple. One can, and will, create personal precepts, like feed the dog at 6:00 pm. And in fact personal vows are how we best live deliberately, how we take a stand and boycott banks or insurance companies, or food from factory farms, and stick with them.

Westerners often have some resistance to precepts because they regard rules and regulations as infringing on personal freedom, or would like to keep their options open rather than to commit themselves to anything. Doing Good or Purifying the Mind seems to afford more opportunity for personal creativity, they reason. However, the notion of personal freedom referred to is almost always at odds with the Buddhist concept of liberation; the latter is not the freedom to do what you want but rather the freedom from having to want anything, that is, it is freedom from the tyranny of the self with its endless desires and needs, dislikes and fears.

Precepts put these requirements of the self into a box that if useful will create an initial level of discomfort, but give an opportunity to understand that self’s needs and to develop humility and contentment. It will also expose consequences that might have happened along with intentions that might have been enacted; these will be left dangling where they can be clearly observed as harmful and ill-conceived. For instance, many Buddhist codes include a precept to abstain from gossip, which gives one pause as certain situations open up this enjoyable option. Without that precept that behavior is likely to go unnoticed as something that causes problems, in its consequences for the mind and for others, we will tend to be careless in that behavior.

In following precepts we learn better to care for consequences and to cultivate skillful karma. There is a Zen saying that if you put a snake in a bamboo tube it will discover its own shape. In fact one of the common expressions for precepts is sekiya, rules of training; one might think of them as training wheels for the bicycle of practicing Doing Good and Purifying the Mind. Precepts will also in the end create a sense of ease as a break from the burden of the self.

Taking this one step further, all of ritual falls withing the range of precepts. In ritual there is no direct moral component, yet there is what is considered proper behavior. But like moral precepts they afford the opportunity to engage in activities independently of the tyranny of the self and thereby to develop wholesome qualities of mind, and to experience a joyful sense of liberation. Ritualizing everyday activities has similar advantages in eliminating opportunities for personal choice.

Last week I described precepts as naturally porous and rigid. The rigidity often shows up when two precepts contradict. For instance Just War might involve killing for some greater good. With the Gestapo at the door and Jews in the attic, a little lie might be justified. In Zen circles there is generally an assumption that precepts almost always contradict one another and that through wisdom one arrives at the appropriate call. It is interesting that the Buddha rarely sanctioned violating precepts. The one example I am aware of is in MN 38 where the Buddha was challenged for using disagreeable speech against Devadatta, his cousin who tried to create a schism in the Sangha, tried to kill the Buddha and other disagreeable things. The Buddha said that sometimes it is necessary to dig a pebble out of a child’s mouth even though it causes great discomfort.

Next week we consider how to Do Good, that is to plan actions that are of benefit, even where the bottom line of the precepts does not require it.

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