Some Thoughts on the Buddhist Ethical Precepts

Fudo

It might seem as if the Buddhist ethical precepts–the basic injunctions against killing, stealing, lying, sexual misbehavior, and heedless intoxication–are relatively straightforward. You know: just don’t kill, steal, lie, screw around or get drunk. What could be clearer? But, alas, things are never so simple. As soon as we try putting the precepts into practice, we encounter difficulties in how to interpret them.

To begin with, there seem to be three different ways of viewing the precepts. The first is to interpret them as absolute rules—they’re what we mustn’t do if we’re to make progress along the path. Thanissaro Bhikkhu  exemplifies this approach when he writes, “the precepts are formulated with no ifs, ands, or buts. This means that they give very clear guidance, with no room for waffling or less-than-honest rationalizations.”

The second way is to view them as “training vehicles”: We follow them as best we can, taking notice of the consequences of both observing and violating them. As we do so, we gradually acquire an increasing faith in their value. This approach is exemplified in the story of the Quaker George Fox who, when William Penn asked him if he should continue to wear his ceremonial sword in contradiction to his Quaker pacifist beliefs, replied “I advise thee to wear it as long as thou canst.” After a while, Penn stopped wearing it. “I have taken thy advice,” he told Fox. “I wore it as long as I could.”

The third way is to view them from a non-dual perspective. Eihei Dogen does just that when he comments on the Zen Precept against indulging in anger, saying “Not advancing, not retreating, not real, not empty. There is an ocean of bright clouds. There is an ocean of solemn clouds.” While we may not fully grasp what Dogen means, one thing is for certain: we probably shouldn’t to take the precept too literally. A non-dual perspective can help us be less judgmental and more compassionate—neither wrongdoers nor sufferers are different from or separate from ourselves. On the other hand, a non-dual perspective can be misinterpreted to mean that since everything’s “empty,” there are neither perpetrators nor victims. This certainly isn’t what Dogen intended. A non-dual perspective requires a simultaneous awareness of both the non-reified interconnectedness-of-everything and the genuine suffering of and harm caused to real and specific individuals.

But let’s shift focus from considering general approaches to the precepts to considering their specific content. Let’s start by examining the Third Precept, the precept against sexual misconduct. While we’re all against sexual misconduct, the precept begs the question of how sexual misconduct is to be defined. What is it, and how can we recognize it when we see it?

Peter Harvey reviewed the way traditional Buddhist cultures define sexual misconduct in his An Introduction to Buddhist Ethics (2000). At different times in various traditional Buddhist cultures, masturbation, oral and anal sex, homosexuality, and overly frequent sex have all been designated as forms of misconduct. Many modern Buddhists tend to dismiss these traditionalist designations, replacing them with abstract Western principles relating to harm, consent and duties to third parties. They generally take a more benign view of sexual relations, so long as they occur between consenting parties and cause no harm.

Buddhist modernists make the assumption that traditional Thai, Tibetan or Japanese sexual ethics are really more Thai, Tibetan, or Japanese than Buddhist. They compare different traditional Buddhist cultures, observe the variations between them, and assign the particularities of these differences to the specific features of the local cultures. Once one decides that traditional Buddhist sexual ethics are no longer authoritative, however, what does one base a more modernist Buddhist sexual ethics on? What many modern Buddhists tend to do is to take pre-existing liberal secular ethics and import them wholesale into Buddhism. This may, in fact, not be all that different from the way that traditional cultures arrived at their designations of  misconduct. The Pali Nikayas have nothing to say about homosexuality or oral sex, and traditional Asian societies probably just took their pre-existing cultural taboos and incorporated them into their understanding of the Third Precept in the same way that modernists are now doing.

To be fully justified in calling these new ethics “Buddhist,” however, one needs to check them for consistency against one’s core Buddhist commitments. For example, one can reason that designating homosexuality as “misconduct” is non-compassionate and causes suffering; that homosexual acts are, in and of themselves, no more harmful than heterosexual acts; and that there is social benefit to be gained from giving one’s imprimatur to loving relationships of all kinds.

While this argument seems about right, it raises questions about other kinds of sexual behaviors that may also require reconsideration. What does one think about pornography, plural marriage, or solitary fetishes? What about sex in exchange for money between consenting adults? The modernist Buddhist criteria for discerning which sexual behaviors promote and which degrade human well-being require further elaboration. In the process of that elaboration we may discover instances in which modernist Buddhist ethics are in accord with liberal humanist ethics, but also instances in which they diverge.

Let’s take another example: the First Precept against killing. At first glance, it seems less problematic than the precept against sexual misconduct. We all know what killing is, and we’re against it. Against it, that is, until we discover that termites are eating away the foundations of our house or we come down with streptococcal pneumonia. Then we’re all for calling in the exterminator or taking antibiotics. I’m not aware of any Buddhist authorities who forbid the use of antibiotics even though antibiotics necessarily involve killing living beings—an issue which the Buddha, living long before Pasteur, could not have anticipated. If we believe the precept permits using antibiotics, then we can no longer interpret the precept as categorical. It no longer forbids all intentional killing, but only most types of intentional killing under most circumstances.

The problem is: which types does it permit, and under which circumstances? Does the precept just mean something like “try living with as little killing as possible and see how it goes?” Should we draw distinctions between killing creatures with lesser degrees of sentience and creatures with greater degrees of sentience? This is a question that could keep Buddhist ethicists quibbling for centuries.

Let’s set the question of sentience aside, however, and limit ourselves to addressing the killing of other human beings. For many years I lived in the small town of Cheshire, Connecticut. In 2007, two ex-convicts invaded a family home in Cheshire and proceeded to rape, strangle and set a mother’s body on fire. They also raped her eleven-year-old daughter, tied her and her seventeen-year old sister to their beds, doused their bodies with gasoline, and set their rooms ablaze. As you can see, I have picked the most horrible case in point that I can imagine.

Here is my hypothetical question: If that was your family and you stumbled upon the crime in progress, what would you do? Do you have even the slightest doubt that you’d use any force necessary to protect your family? Do you believe that Buddhist ethics ought to require you to allow the crime to proceed if you couldn’t stop it through less-than-lethal means?

I suspect that most of us agree that there are extreme circumstances under which resorting to violence might be permitted. Where we might disagree is on the specific circumstances under which it may be permissible. Categorically saying “killing is never permitted” doesn’t accord with what most of us truly believe. We see the ideal of never killing as aspirational, but we wouldn’t feel necessarily bound by it under certain circumstances.

Let’s take this one step further. Traditional interpretations of the First Precept also forbid abortion, assisted suicide, and the euthanasia of suffering pets. According to the Vinaya, for example, a monk who intentionally destroys an embryo is to be permanently expelled from the sangha. This traditional view is at odds with liberal humanist ethics, and this creates a certain degree of dissonance for Buddhist modernists. How do modernists, who may support euthanasia or abortion under certain circumstances, resolve this dissonance? One way is by invoking the principle of upaya or “skillful means” and asserting that when one’s goal is the compassionate ending of suffering, killing may be permitted.

There are traditional Buddhist stories that support this interpretation. The Upaya Kausalya Sutra contains the fable of a bodhisattva sea captain whose ship is carrying five hundred merchants who are on the path to becoming bodhisattvas. There’s a robber aboard who intends to rob and kill the merchants. The captain rules out warning the merchants because they might be tempted to throw the robber overboard, and the resulting bad karma would delay their becoming bodhisattvas. This would be very bad because, more than anything else, the world needs bodhisattvas. Instead, the captain kills the robber himself, accepting a consequent rebirth in hell for “a hundred thousand eons,” but helping all beings in the process. Along the same lines, there’s an historical account of Pelgyi Dorje, the ninth-century Buddhist monk who assassinated Langdarma, the reviled Tibetan king who put Tibetan Buddhadharma in jeopardy.

These tales suggest that, under certain circumstances, the motivation of compassion can trump the prohibition against killing. But we can also readily see what a slippery slope this is. As philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe notes, “a man’s conscience may tell him to do the vilest things.” Robespierre, Lenin, and Pol Pot were all idealists who did unconscionable things in order to allegedly remake the world for the better.  As the saying goes, “If you want to make an omelet you have to break some eggs.” Once we allow for the possibility of “compassionate” killing as “skillful means,” we’re stalked by the ghosts of the reign of terror, the gulag, and the holocaust. The doctrine of skillful means hopes to elide this difficulty by emphasizing compassion, but the notion of compassion isn’t an entirely unproblematic one.

For example, one might rightly ask whether compassion can ever be excessive. Are there any limits, for example, on the degree of generosity that bodhisattvas (and by bodhisattvas I mean practitioners who’ve taken their Bodhisattva vows–not celestial bodhisattvas) ought to express? The Jatakas are folk tales that are intended to teach us moral lessons, much like Aesop’s Fables. There’s one particular tale–the tale of Vessantara, one of the Buddha’s earlier incarnations–that makes me cringe. Out of his boundless compassion for a greedy beggar, Vessantara gives his children away to be the beggar’s slaves. The moral seems to be that a bodhisattva is attached to nothing, willingly giving everything—even his children—away.

Consider the implications of unlimited compassion in your own life. Imagine that you have $20 to spare and learn of a charity helping starving children. You gladly donate the $20 and feel the positive aftereffects of generosity. You then realize that you could donate even more money. You don’t really need to read a newspaper every day or watch television. You promptly cancel your subscription and sell your TV, donating the proceeds to charity. Next, you realize you don’t really need to live in a modest house. You sell your home, donate those proceeds, and rent a single room. And so it goes. Do you really need more than a single change of clothes? Do you really need two kidneys? At what point have you given enough? There are always more children to save.

The West makes a distinction between ethical acts that are required and those that are merely “supererogatory,” that is, are admirable but not required. There seems to be no such distinction in Buddhism, and we may ask if Buddhism holds us to an impossible standard. Buddhists sometimes address this question of an “impossible standard” by suggesting that we owe compassion to ourselves as well—that we ought to include ourselves on the list of sentient beings to whom we owe compassion. But, this formulation doesn’t really resolve the question of where to properly draw the line. Vessantara, after all, showed no such compassion, either to himself or his children. Neither did Prince Sattva, in another Jataka tale, who threw himself from a cliff so that hungry tiger cubs could feed on his body.

As Buddhists, we probably agree it would be better if everyone valued compassion highly and if everyone tried extending his or her compassion to an ever-wider range of recipients under an ever-broader set of circumstances. We probably also agree that learning generosity means sensing our current limits and pushing against them, exploring the edges of what’s possible. Our most common problem isn’t extreme altruism at all, but excessive complacency and self-satisfaction. We all need to open our hearts wider than they are. Still, the question remains: ought there to be limits to our generosity, and if so, what are the guidelines for those limits?

A second problem related to compassion is whether we fully endorse the idea of compassion without attachment or preference. While there’s real value in a universal benevolence directed towards everyone without exception, if we see two children drowning, one our own and one a stranger’s–and if we can only save one–is it reasonable to think that we show no preference towards saving our own? There’s something deeply unsettling about the idea of complete and radical equanimity. While we may agree that we owe a duty of care to all sentient beings—and perhaps even to all plants and inanimate objects—it seems inhuman to think we ought to strip ourselves of all attachments to family and friends and feel exactly the same way towards everyone. In classical Chinese philosophy, this is the criticism that the third century Confucian scholar Xunzi leveled against the Mohists who argued on behalf of jian’ai or “impartial concern.” It seems as if the Buddhist ideal of complete equanimity and detachment reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of human nature, both in terms of how it is and how it ought to be. In following Buddhism, most of us want to become the best human beings we can possibly be. We don’t want to lose our humanity in the process.

We could have picked any of the precepts and discovered exactly the same sorts of questions. How literally are we to interpret them? Does Buddhism make extreme demands that push us towards a semi-divine apotheosis, or is it a middle way for deepening and enriching our humanity? To what extent are modernist Western values compatible with traditional Buddhist teachings? As we strip away at what seems inessential to Buddhist practice, what do we risk losing in the process? May we find ourselves rejecting ideas that –precisely because they are discordant with modernity—have the capacity to serve as invaluable correctives to the one-sidedness of our present lives?

What’s clear is that the meaning of the precepts isn’t simply a “given.” Every practitioner must read them anew and breathe new life into them. The ethical life isn’t a matter of following rules, but of committing to a particular line of inquiry–of asking which choices exemplify the skillful, the right, and the good in each moment.

Despite their interpretive difficulties, the precepts are the living heart of Buddhism. They help us to enact and refine our understanding of our interrelationship with all beings, and serve as antidotes to the fragmented individualism, self-centeredness, and acquisitiveness that are the scourges of contemporary life. They point towards the engaged, compassionate regard for others that is the hallmark of the Enlightened Way.

 

 

 

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Thoughts Before Jukai

The Place of Good Zen by Hakuin Ekaku (1686-1768)

The Place of Good Zen (Calligraphy by Zen Master Hakuin Ekaku, 1686-1768)

Two years have passed since I first wrote about my intention to receive jukai, the Buddhist precepts, in a lay ordination ceremony.  In the intervening years I’ve been studying the precepts with a Zen priest, and sewing my rakusu, the ritual garment that signifies lay ordination.  The ceremony takes place in another week after our regular zazenkai, or half-day sitting.  It seems a fitting time to reflect back on the process and the meaning of the ceremony.

Two years ago I wrote:

“After fifteen years as a non-Buddhist Buddhist, I’m taking the plunge.  I’ve decided to start the path leading to jukai, the precept-taking ritual that means formally becoming a Buddhist in Zen…

It’s not a rational decision. But it feels right. It doesn’t mean I’ll stop being an iconoclast.  It doesn’t mean I’m drinking the Kool-Aid or joining the club.  It doesn’t mean I think Buddhists are better than anyone else or that everything in Buddhism is true. It does mean I’m ready to say “this is my path,” and I’m ready to make a deeper commitment to it, rather than always standing a little bit outside.”

Those words remain germane today.

The process of exploring the precepts involved a constant probing and questioning, some of which worked its way into blog posts here and here.  I struggled to interpret the precepts in a way that was personally meaningful.  The Buddha called on us to be lamps unto ourselves, and the understanding we arrive at must always be our own, not some worn out hand-me-down.

Take, for example, the precept against discussing the faults of others. I could see the point to it: abstaining from hurtful gossip, examining the beam in one’s own eye before condemning the mote in another’s.  We all know people who prefer to cast stones rather than consider their own contributions to a problem.

But the precept has its dark side. It can easily become a rationalization for evading our responsibility to bear witness to evil, or counsel someone against causing harm. The real question is, what’s our motivation for discussing someone’s faults?  If we can honestly say that we’re motivated by our desire to help, and that we’ve worded things in a way that’s likely to be both skillful and timely, where’s the problem?  The precept, as I interpret it, calls for self-examination, mindfulness, and the employment of skillful means, not abstaining from any and all criticism, whatever the case may be.  Zen has always taught us not to be bound by words and letters, but to discover the truths that language points to, but in the process, partially obscures.

Each of the precepts stands in similar need of clarification and interpretation.

Even one so seemingly simple as abstaining from killing.

Not killing?  Ever?  What should I do about termites in my house?  Can I use antibiotics when I’m suffering from an infection?  

Nothing is ever simply black or white.

The precepts aren’t absolutes, but beacons guiding us to proceed with caution and compassion, mindfulness and heedfulness.  At their core are the familiar Buddhist admonitions to come from a place of integrity, care, and non-harming.

The sewing of the rakusu, as anyone who has sewn one can attest, was a bear.  You can see the sewing instructions here. Sewing was a brand new skill set for me.  I had to sew, pull the stitches, and resew every seam several times. Pieces had to be cut and recut, pressed and re-pressed.  They say it takes the average person about five weeks to sew a rakusu.  It took me the better part of a year.

 

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Is it perfect?  No.  It’s like my life:  not perfect, but an honest effort.

The beautiful wooden ring connecting two of my rakusu straps was handmade by the Venerable Kobutsu Malone who lives up in Maine.  Kobutsu is the Rinzai Zen priest responsible for setting up the Shimano and Sasaki Archives documenting the unethical behavior of two well-known Zen masters residing in the West. He also served for eight years as a volunteer Zen priest at Sing Sing, teaching the Dharma to inmates.  Kobutsu’s ring helps remind me that Zen practice is not about bowing to authority, but about standing up for the truth of one’s life.  It also reminds me that our practice is not for ourselves, but is dedicated to all beings.

The byline for my next post will include my Dharma name along with my given and surnames.  My preceptor will present it to me at the jukai ceremony.

Don’t let the name change fool you.   It will still be just me.

 

 

 

 

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The Harbor and the Weir

There’s something strange about Zen’s 10th Grave Precept — the one against “defaming the Three Treasures” of the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha.

Why would anyone want to maliciously slander the Three Treasures?  The very thought  of it reminds me of the Stephen King protagonist who, concerned about the paradoxes inherent in time travel, asks “what if you went back and killed your own grandfather?” Another character replies, “Why the fuck would you do that?”

Exactly.

It’s not as if the Three Treasures need anyone’s protection. You can defame “2+2=4” all day long up and down the block, but “2+2” still equals “4”.  You can defame the Dharma all you want, but it remains unstained — how can you defame mindfulness or compassion?

The 10th Precept is often accompanied by two Japanese quotes (the translation is credited to Robert Aitken Roshi and his Diamond Sangha).

The first quote is attributed to Bodhidharma:

“Self-nature is subtle and mysterious. In the realm of the One, not holding nihilistic concepts of ordinary beings and sages is called the Precept of Not Defaming the Three Treasures.”

The Bodhidharma quote opens up the question of identity.  What is our true nature (self-nature) and what is the nature of other beings (ordinary beings and sages)?  What is our nature when seen through the lens of the absolute (the realm of the one)?  Bodhidharma’s quote points to both our mutual co-participation in the fabric of reality and our potential for awakening. When we fail to see how we are all an integral part of the whole, when we give up on anyone’s potential for awakening, we are defaming the Three Treasures — the Buddha (our potential for awakening) the dharma (the interconnectedness and contingent nature of all things) and the sangha (our participation in the community of awakening beings).

The other quote is undoubtedly Dogen’s:

“The teisho of the actual body is the harbor and the weir. This is the most important thing in the world. Its virtue finds its home in the ocean of essential nature. It is beyond explanation. We just accept it with respect and gratitude.”

A teisho is a dharma talk given by a Zen teacher.  In this case, the dharma talk in question is not a verbal one —  and it’s not given by a Zen teacher.  It’s the teaching we may receive at any moment from the actual body.  Our actual body is this body right here and now, this lived body as we experience and act through it  —  but it’s not just these five or six feet of skin, bones, muscles, sinews, and internal organs.  Our body is an integral part of all that is, including not only the live feel of movement and emotion, but birdsong, wheat fields, trees, and stars.  Everything is teaching us all the time.   Theologians sometimes question why God spoke to the prophets but no longer speaks to us  — but Dogen’s actual body never shuts up.  Let those who have ears hear.  This actual body, the dharmakaya, is our safe home (a harbor for boats, a weir for fish).  Dogen tells us this living teaching of the universe is the most important thing in the world.  Listen!  Feel!  See!  This teaching is beyond words — there’s no explanation we can give.

But what does Dogen’s quote have to do with not defaming the Three Treasures?

The answer lies in the line “We just accept it with respect and gratitude.”  Gratitude and respect are our natural responses when we listen openly to life.  We ourselves become filled with life — we feel ourselves unfold and flow.  This is grace.  In the presence of gratitude and respect, defamation doesn’t even exist as a possibility.  Defamation is the act of a dried-out husk — cynical, cut-off, despising, ungracious — not a being living each moment in harmony and awareness. In this sense, the 10th Precept is not a mere admonition to avoid slander — it’s an invitation to receive grace — to awaken, to open, to be aware, to listen with one’s whole being to the ongoing teisho of life.

As Dogen says, this is the most important thing in the world.

 

 

 

 

 

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A True Man of No-Rank

Linji (by Hakuin)

Soto Zen’s 7th Grave Precept calls for not “praising or elevating” oneself while “blaming or abusing” others. It seems like good advice — don’t be so self centered, don’t create disharmony, look to your own faults before blaming others. It also reflects Buddhism’s emphasis on non-self and non-duality — if there’s no division between self and other — if there’s just one vast field of practice — if one can’t claim credit for one’s strengths and virtues because they arise dependently from “outside” the self — and if the faults of others are also dependently arisen — then what sense does elevating the self or blaming others make? None, ultimately.

But there’s more of interest here.

Whenever we interact with another person, three dimensions of experience spontaneously emerge. We can call those dimensions “In/Out,” “Up/Down,” and “Near/Far.” “In/Out” reflects the degree to which we accept each other as belonging to the same tribe — are we family, friends, allies, and members-of-the-club, or are we strangers, enemies, and/or rejects? “Up/Down” reflects where we stand in the pecking order: leaders, followers, rebels, or mascots. “Near/Far” reflects our degree of mutual intimacy. How transparent can we be? Can we take off our masks and let down our hair? Do we have an “I-Thou” or “I-It” relationship? All three of these dimensions are unavoidable. They emerge at the moment of “Hello.”

An up/down dimension lies within every interpersonal transaction. If someone knocks on my door and asks if he may come in, he acknowledges my power to permit or deny his entrance. If I say, “Come in, take a seat,” I confirm my authority to control what happens in my space. If he replies, “I’d rather stand,” he’s attempting to re-renegotiate control. If I reply “suit yourself,” I let the challenge pass, but reserve my future rights. And so it goes. At any given moment we’re either one-up, one-down, or sharing status as coequals.

The Chinese Zen Master Linji famously observed “I, a mountain monk, tell you clearly… there is a true man with no-rank always present not even a hair’s breadth away.” Linji wasn’t talking about interpersonal relations. He was saying something enigmatic about self-view and enlightened being. But let’s take Linji more literally (and out of context). In our everyday existence where we’re always one-up, one-down, or co-equal, what does it mean to be a “true man of no-rank?”

Imagine walking into an encounter with no idea of your status in the relationship. I don’t mean being oblivious to what you imagine the other person thinks of you. I mean having no evaluation, positive or negative, about your own worth. You just are who you happen to be in this moment. Any concerns about what the other person thinks about you are irrelevant to your own worth since you have none. You don’t exist anywhere on that scale. The other person’s evaluations only matter in terms of how they’ll affect the likely outcome of the transaction.

You are now free to do whatever seems necessary or skillful. You don’t have to ask whether it’s your place or right to say something. You don’t have to worry about how you’ll feel if the other person thinks poorly of you. You only have to ask if it’s skillful and likely to turn out well.

What would it be like to negotiate the world in this way, moment after moment? We can simply be what is needed in each situation to the degree our energy and judgment permit. We would go through life neither up nor down but just here. Like Mitt Romney’s trees, we would always be just the right height.

Every now and then I run across a tale of a Zen Master and a Warrior in medieval China or Japan. I suspect the tale is bogus because I can’t track down its original source. (Where is the Zen Snopes when you need it?) As the story goes, the Warrior tries to intimidate the Zen Master by announcing he’s the man who can “run a sword through” the Zen Master “without blinking an eye.” In his mind he’s one-up; he’s in control. The Zen Master looks at if differently, however. He responds that he’s the man who “can be run through with a sword without blinking an eye.” As far as he’s concerned, that’s not a one-down status. It’s just a fact. Now that we’ve established who we are and have been properly introduced we can get on with the business at hand. The Zen Master isn’t ignorant of the brute facts, he just exists outside of the power differential. He’s a true man of no-rank.

Daisan (the teacher-student interview) is a good place to explore this issue. What’s it like when you sit and meet with your teacher? Who are you when you sit on the cushion face to face? Is the teacher up? Are you down? Can you say/ask whatever needs saying/asking for the benefit of your practice? Can you exist in a space that’s neither up nor down?

Thoughts of “up” and “down,” acceptance and rejection, closeness and distance always arise. They’re hard-wired into us, part of our humanness. The question is whether we can let these thoughts come and go without attaching to them, without believing them, without making more of them then what they are — simply words and concepts arising in the mind — clouds scurrying across the vast expanse of blue sky which leave no traces of themselves behind.

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The Second Precept

The Second Buddhist Precept states simply:

I undertake the training rule to abstain from taking what is not given.

Adinnādānā veramaṇī sikkhāpadaṃ samādiyāmi.

This means abstaining from taking what belongs to others — in other words, stealing. Unlike the Judeo-Christian Eighth Commandment, it’s not a divine edict.  It’s training in the practice of non-greed for the good of one’s character and for the happiness of oneself and others.

Most of us don’t go around breaking and entering, mugging, or shoplifting, so it would seem that abstaining from stealing should be a relatively easy matter — but it’s not. There are more subtle forms of theft — downloading and uploading copyrighted material without permission, underreporting cash income on one’s taxes, using ideas without attribution, bringing paper clips home from the office, inflating damage estimates for insurance reimbursement.  The temptation to petty larceny runs deep within the crooked human heart, and aspiring to impeccability requires some heavy lifting.

Corporations can also violate the Second Precept.  Ethical businesses obtain raw materials and labor at a fair price and create something of value which they sell at a fair price.  Ethical businesses also abstain from passing hidden costs along to stakeholders.  Companies that purchase raw materials from developing nations at unfair prices, exploit workers through unfair wages and working conditions, expose consumers to risk through unsafe products, and pollute the environment are engaging in a form of theft.  So are industries that systematically mislead others about the real costs of their products, for example, the health costs of tobacco and soft-drink consumption, or the health and environmental costs of mining and burning coal, deep sea drilling for oil, hydrofracking for gas, or storing “spent” nuclear fuel in cooling ponds.

Governments can violate the Second Precept through unjust confiscatory taxation.  Zen Master Hakuin (1686-1769) railed against the typical Japanese Daimyo (feudal lord) of his day who lived:

“a life of the greatest luxury… with never a thought of the difficulties of the common people under him. From the blood and sweat he wrings from them he is able to fill his tables with fine sake….  As there is never enough money to satisfy such appetites, he ends up dispatching merciless ministers….  Not only do officials reckon the tax rate yearly, they also raise the rate two or three times during the same year.” [1]

Closer to our own time, the American revolution was fought over taxation without representation, and some present day third-world countries are governed by oligarchies so corrupt they can only be called “kleptocracies.”

Political conservatives sometimes claim taxation levels in the United States are confiscatory.  In fact, personal U.S. taxation levels are considerably lower than most Western European democracies.  Additionally, federal tax revenues currently constitute a smaller percentage of our gross domestic product than they did during the decade of the nineteen-fifties.

The Bush era tax cuts have, however, contributed to a massive transfer of wealth from the poor and middle class to the wealthiest Americans. This transfer is also a function of exponential increases in executive compensation while the hourly wages of American workers have declined.  Fortune 500 CEOs enjoyed a 23% increase in compensation in 2010 alone.  The wealthiest one percent of the country now owns 38% of all privately held stock, 60% of all financial assets, and 62% of all business equity, returning concentration of wealth to levels not seen since the Roaring Twenties and the Gilded Age. [2]  Current tax policy benefits the richest at the expense of improvements in infrastructure, education, and health care for all.

No doubt, the reasons for the increasing disparity in wealth are multiple and complex, including the globalization of the world economy, the loss of manufacturing jobs overseas, the decline of labor unions, the deregulation of the banking industry, the rising cost of energy, the failures of our educational system, and the Bush era tax cuts for the wealthy.  The simple, unbridled exercise of human greed fits somewhere into the mix as well.  Not unexpectedly, the wealthy continue to vigorously advocate for a variety of policies (subsidies, incentives, tax write-offs, deregulation, union busting, shredding the social safety net, shifting medical risk from insurers to patients, ending the estate tax, hobbling Medicare’s bargaining power, etc.) that further accelerate the ongoing transfer of wealth.  We might also note that the Supreme Court’s “Citizen’s United” decision gives the wealthy even more of an advantage in shifting the political playing field to their advantage.

The Second Precept applies to more than just the theft of property and wealth, however.  It can also apply to the giving and receiving of affection, attention, and caring in personal relationships and the sharing of tasks and responsibilities within them.  Most imbalances within relationships are not regulated by law and some are reinforced by prevailing customs, making it easier to fail to recognize them when they occur, and allowing their justification since “everyone does it.”  Focusing on the needs of our partners and dependents more than our own is an important part of Buddhist practice.  We might consider replacing the Golden Rule of “Do unto others as we would have them do unto us” with the Platinum Rule: “Do unto others as they would wish to be treated.”  This isn’t to suggest one should neglect one’s own needs — self-compassion is important too.  As Rabbi Hillel said, “If I am not for myself, who will be?  If I am not for others, what am I?”  It’s just that most of us are so self-focused that a little overcompensation in the other direction couldn’t hurt!   Is it possible to give more of ourselves emotionally — to be more generous than we are at present — without resentment — without fearing we might give more than we get in return?  Can we make that our ongoing practice?

The beauty of the Precepts is that they turn all our interactions into fields of practice in a way solitary sitting never can.  They allow us to explore the degree to which we express integrity, generosity, and compassion in our daily lives.  In following the Second Precept we aspire to more than mere equity, the fair giving of tit-for-tat, but to being open-hearted, caring, and mindful of the needs of others.

Thich Nhat Hanh has rewritten and expanded the Second Precept to make its intention clearer:

Aware of the suffering caused by exploitation, social injustice, stealing, and oppression, I am committed to practicing generosity in my thinking, speaking, and acting. I am determined not to steal and not to possess anything that should belong to others; and I will share my time, energy, and material resources with those who are in need. I will practice looking deeply to see that the happiness and suffering of others are not separate from my own happiness and suffering; that true happiness is not possible without understanding and compassion; and that running after wealth, fame, power and sensual pleasures can bring much suffering and despair. I am aware that happiness depends on my mental attitude and not on external conditions, and that I can live happily in the present moment simply by remembering that I already have more than enough conditions to be happy. I am committed to practicing Right Livelihood so that I can help reduce the suffering of living beings on Earth and reverse the process of global warming.

The beauty of Thay’s reformulation is that it turns a negative — abstaining from stealing and avoiding greed  — into a positive — the practice of generosity along with genuine activity to reduce individual and systemic suffering.

In discussing his reformulation in depth, Thay adds:

“When you practice one precept deeply, you will discover that you are practicing all five. The First Precept is about taking life, which is a form of stealing — stealing the most precious thing someone has, his or her life. When we meditate on the Second Precept, we see that stealing, in the forms of exploitation, social injustice, and oppression, are acts of killing — killing slowly by exploitation, by maintaining social injustice, and by political and economic oppression. Therefore, the Second Precept has much to do with the precept of not killing. We see the “interbeing” nature of the first two precepts. This is true of all Five Precepts.”

Buddhist practice is truly holographic — every part of the practice contains and reflects every other part of the practice.  If all we do is practice the Second Precept, we are decreasing self-aggrandizement, increasing generosity, increasing mindful awareness of our greed, grasping, and self-justification, and increasing awareness of how we depend on and influence the interconnected web of existence.

Not a bad payoff for one simple precept.

 

 

 

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  1. [1] Katushiro Yoshizawa (2009). The Religious Art of Zen Master Hakuin. Berkeley: Counterpoint.
  2. [2] http://sociology.ucsc.edu/whorulesamerica/power/wealth.html

Buddhist Teachers Behaving Badly

The latest dustup over John Tarrant’s Shambhala Sun obituary for Robert Aitkin Roshi provides us with yet another opportunity to examine the issue of bad sexual behavior on the part of some Buddhist teachers.  Unfortunately, this kind of examination is always timely.  In the past year we’ve seen scandals surrounding Eido Shimano Roshi and Dennis Gempo Merzel, but over the years scandals within the Buddhist community have become sadly familiar.   We should take these scandals as opportunities to explore ever relevant questions concerning sex, power, and Enlightenment.

The Third Lay Buddhist Training Precept states “I undertake the training rule to abstain from sexual misconduct.” (Kāmesumicchācāra veramanī sikkhāpadam samādiyāmi).  The precept emphasizes the prevention of harm to sexual partners and concerned third parties.  The precept is vague, however, about what constitutes sexual misconduct.  The precept is usually interpreted in the light of the prevailing customs and mores within each distinct Buddhist community.  Peter Harvey [1] has done an excellent job of surveying the ways the precept has been interpreted across societies and over time.  My review of these interpretations below is abstracted from his survey (but any errors in it are completely my own).

Sexual misconduct traditionally includes adultery and consorting with prostitutes (c.f. Sutta-nipāta and Nāgārjuna) as well as rape and incest.  Having sex with anyone who is already in a committed relationship with another is also usually considered a violation of the precept.  In Thailand flirting with a married woman is seen as a violation, whereas in Sri Lanka premarital sex is proscribed.  The fourth-century Abhidharma-kośa-bhāsya included the use of “unsuitable” orifices, places, or times.  The Upāsaka-śīla-sūtra included frequenting brothels and the use of “instruments.” Gampopa’s (1079-1153) Jewel Ornament of Liberation included overly frequent sex (more than five successive times!) and homosexuality, whereas Patrul Rinpoche (1808-1887) proscribed masturbation in his Kuzang Lama’i Shelung.  Buddhaghosa and Śāntideva both considered homosexual behavior to be a violation of the third precept, but homosexuality was tolerated and accepted in Japan, even as part of monastic life.

Where does this leave the issue of teacher-student sex?  In the contemporary West, the ethics concerning teacher-student sex are still evolving.  In elementary, middle, and high schools teacher-student sexual contact is not permitted as students are still (for the most part) minors who cannot give consent, and because it would constitute a serious violation of a relationship of authority and trust.  Ethical rules concerning college faculty-student sex are less clearly delineated since many students are no longer minors. Some colleges forbid it, others merely discourage it.  Ethical guidelines recognize an inherent conflict between grading and writing letters of recommendation for students and being in a sexual relationship with them.  While faculty-student relationships occur with considerable frequency, there’s also a considerable degree of queasiness about the potential for abuse of power within these relationships.  In counseling and clinical psychology, therapist-client sexual encounters are considered ethical violations.  Psychology’s ethical standards recognize the danger of abuses of power, the need for therapist objectivity, and the irrational idealizations that clients may project onto therapists.  Lastly, we might mention that sex abuse scandals within the Roman Catholic Church have increased public awareness of the real and enduring psychological and spiritual harm caused by violations of clerical authority and trust.

These issues of trust, authority, abuse of power, idealizations and projections, and the need for teachers to retain impartiality and objectivity are all relevant to the question of relationships between Buddhist teachers and their students, and there have been attempts to develop codes of ethics for Buddhist teachers.  For example, Spirit Rock has developed a code of ethics for teachers in the Insight Meditation tradition that includes the following paragraphs:

“We agree to avoid creating harm through sexuality and to avoid sexual exploitation or relationships of a sexual manner that are outside of the bounds of the relationship commitments we have made to another or that involve another who has made vows to another. Teachers with vows of celibacy will live according to their vows. Teachers in committed relationships will honor their vows and refrain from adultery. All teachers agree not to use their teaching role to exploit their authority and position in order to assume a sexual relationship with a student.

Because several single teachers in our community have developed partnerships and marriages with former students, we acknowledge that such a healthy relationship can be possible, but that great care and sensitivity are needed. We agree that in this case the following guidelines are crucial:

A) A sexual relationship is never appropriate between teachers and students.

B) During retreats or formal teaching, any intimation of future student-teacher romantic or sexual relationship is inappropriate.

C) If interest in a genuine and committed relationship develops over time between a single teacher and a student, the student-teacher relationship must clearly and consciously have ended before any further development toward a romantic relationship. Such a relationship must be approached with restraint and sensitivity – in no case should it occur immediately after retreat. A minimum time period of three months or longer from the last formal teaching between them, and a clear understanding from both parties that the student-teacher relationship has ended must be coupled with a conscious commitment to enter into a relationship that brings no harm to either party.”

Similar codes of ethics have been developed by a number of Zen communities, including ones where teacher misconduct has occurred in the past (e.g., San Francisco Zen Center, Kwan Um School of Zen).

Given the evolving consensus about teacher-student relationships, why does misconduct continue to occur?  The answer is simple: because all human beings are imperfect, and because any position of power invites both temptations and opportunities for abuse.  The Buddhist community, however, may have several unique factors that complicate addressing this issue.

Certain tantric practices (e.g., the use of mudras or “seals”) may open the door for potential abuse unless there is a widely understood consensus on ethical guidelines regarding their use. Similarly, the idealization of “crazy wisdom” within tantric traditions may lead students to rationalize teachers’s unacceptable behaviors, and teachers to rationalize being out-of-control.

The biggest obstacle within Buddhism, however, may be the idea of “Enlightenment” itself.  Enlightenment is traditionally described as something that puts a permanent end to unwholesome desiring.  Once one has achieved Enlightenment, there’s no backsliding.  Enlightened Beings are, by definition, incapable of sexual misconduct.  Any teacher who believes this is at risk for becoming an abuser.  Any student who believes this is at risk for rationalizing and accepting abuse.

The idea that one can have a magical experience that makes one perfect and makes one invulnerable to harmful temptations is a fairy tale.  Everyone’s brain contains a hypothalamus, and no amount of meditation or insight can surgically remove it.  The hypothalamus is the seat of desire in the human nervous system, including sexual desire.  We have a wonderful cerebral cortex which can dampen, override, and modify hypothalamic output, but not eliminate it.  As Freud might say, we all have an “id,” a dynamic, insatiable source of passion and desire, that is a permanent part of our psychological constitution.  Buddhism teaches us to be heedful and mindful of desire and deal with it intelligently in order to be fully and completely human.  It shouldn’t teach that there’s a stage when we no longer need to exert due care.

Buddhist practitioners often experience powerful meditative experiences that have real transformative power.  These realizations, however, do not completely obliterate temptation or the repetition and acting-out of deeply ingrained behavioral patterns.  Meditative realizations need to be gradually actualized and reinforced.  Psychotherapists know that a genuine insight in one situation does not automatically generalize and transfer to other situations.  There’s a process called “working through” that needs to occur before one can actualize insight across circumstances.  Similarly, Korean Zen Master Bojo Jinul (1158-1210) taught that the Buddhist path is one of “sudden enlightenment” followed by “gradual cultivation.”  We never finish our development.  Enlightenment is a horizon we aim at, not something we achieve.

That’s why codes of ethics will always be necessary.  That’s why there will always be Buddhist teachers who will fall short of embodying them.  That’s why our life needs to be one of continual practice.

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  1. [1] Harvey, P. (2000).  An Introduction to Buddhist Ethics. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press

The Fourth Precept

The current public discussion over the role vitriolic political rhetoric plays in creating an atmosphere that increases the likelihood of violent actions is as good a time as any to revisit the Fourth Buddhist Precept.

The Fourth Precept reads:

Musāvāda veramaṇī sikkhāpadaṃ samādiyāmi.

I undertake the vow to abstain from false speech.

“False speech” is a faithful translation of “musāvāda,” but most Buddhists interpret this precept more broadly to include all forms of wrongful or harmful speech.  The Pali Canon identifies four types of wrongful speech: 1) lies, 2) backbiting and slander, 3) abusive and hurtful speech, and 4) frivolous talk.  This would include speech that is harsh, untruthful, poorly timed, motivated by greed or hatred, or otherwise connected with harm. Gossip, misleading arguments, verbal bullying, incitements to violence, rage outbursts, malicious ridicule, and poorly worded or ill-timed truths that cause pain without benefit all fall into the category of wrongful speech.

Thich Nhat Hanh has interpreted the fourth precept to include all forms of unmindful speech and unheedful listening:

Aware of the suffering caused by unmindful speech and the inability to listen to others, I am committed to cultivating loving speech and compassionate listening in order to relieve suffering and to promote reconciliation and peace in myself and among other people, ethnic and religious groups, and nations. Knowing that words can create happiness or suffering, I am committed to speaking truthfully using words that inspire confidence, joy, and hope. When anger is manifesting in me, I am determined not to speak. I will practice mindful breathing and walking in order to recognize and to look deeply into my anger. I know that the roots of anger can be found in my wrong perceptions and lack of understanding of the suffering in myself and in the other person. I will speak and listen in a way that can help myself and the other person to transform suffering and see the way out of difficult situations. I am determined not to spread news that I do not know to be certain and not to utter words that can cause division or discord. I will practice Right Diligence to nourish my capacity for understanding, love, joy, and inclusiveness, and gradually transform anger, violence, and fear that lie deep in my consciousness.

and elsewhere:

“Do not say untruthful things for the sake of personal interest or to impress people. Do not utter words that cause division and hatred. Do not spread news that you do not know to be certain. Do not criticize or condemn things of which you are not sure. Always speak truthfully and constructively. Have the courage to speak out about situations of injustice, even when doing so may threaten your own safety.”

It’s hard to improve on either the aspiration or the advice!

Mindfulness of speech allows us to carefully guard what we’re about to say.  If we’re aware that we’re about to say something we might regret, it’s helpful to pause just long enough to ask ourselves four questions:

  1. Why am I saying this?
  2. Is it completely true?
  3. Is it the right time to say it?
  4. Is it liable to result in benefit or harm?

If the motivation is self-serving or hateful, if it’s not completely true, if it’s poorly worded or ill-timed, or if it is likely to cause more harm than good, then don’t say it.  It’s simple.

The Buddha often refrained from giving painful or unwelcome answers until the questioner had asked three times.  There’s an American Indian proverb that we should think things over three times before we say them.  Once certain things have escaped our lips, it’s impossible to take them back or undo their harm.  Mindfulness is the key.

It’s often said that there are three kinds of lies, “lies, damned lies, and statistics,” but by my count there are six different kinds:

  1. Lies to aggrandize the Self (exaggerating one’s accomplishments)
  2. Lies to avoid shame and blame
  3. Lies to take advantage of others (manipulation, con games)
  4. Lies to cause malicious harm (gossip, slander)
  5. Lies to protect others from embarrassment (“little white lies”)
  6. Lies to help others (“skillful means,” paradoxical therapy)

These lies are not all equally harmful or blameworthy.  Lies intended without harm and resulting in no harm seem less blameworthy than those devised with malice aforethought that succeed in injuring their target.  Self-aggrandizing speech reinforces patterns of “selfing” and causes others to doubt one’s trustworthiness but causes little other harm.  Virtuous lies are lies that may even have positive results.  We might include in this category the physician who offers hope to a terminal patient, or the Bodhisattva who uses “skillful means” to hasten a student’s enlightenment. Virtuous lies seem less blameworthy, however, if and only if both their intention and their effect is beneficial.  For example, the physician’s offer of false hope to the terminal patient might ease the distress of the person who is unable to come to terms with death, but it could also impede acceptance and preparation for death in a less psychologically fragile patient.

Inflamed political rhetoric fails a number of important karmic tests.  It is 1) not fully truthful, 2) spoken out of aversion, 3) slanderous and/or demeaning in intent, and 4) crafted to ignite passion rather than reason.  What good could possibly come from it?

As the Dhammapada notes:

“If you speak… with a corrupted heart, then suffering follows you — as the wheel of the cart, the track of the ox that pulls it.” [1]

Words, like actions, have consequences, and set the stage for our future happiness or misery.  This is the implacable law of cause-and-effect.  We can refrain from causing harm to ourselves and others only through mindfulness, discerning wisdom, and a compassionate heart.

This week the reckless use of language has not only clouded and impeded a true national dialogue on the important issues of our time, but it also has contributed to tragic deaths and injuries caused by a deluded mind with a semi-automatic weapon.

May all the victims, families and friends of the victims, and all beings find peace and freedom from sorrow.

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  1. [1] Thanissaro Bhikku, translator

The Psychotherapist’s Path

Vajrayogini, Rubin Museum of Art
The following is a revised excerpt from my chapter “Psychotherapy Practice as Buddhist Practice” in Encountering Buddhism: Western Psychology and Buddhist Teachings which explores the relevance of the Eightfold Noble Path to the psychotherapist’s craft.  If you’re not a therapist, you might not find this all that interesting.  On the other hand, you could replace the words “therapist” and “client” with the words “myself” and “anyone I’m in a relationship with” and see if the shoe fits.

Psychotherapy is a form of right livelihood that depends on right speech, and as such, every encounter with a client can be a spiritual encounter.  Therapists are supposed to maintain mindfulness, avoid ensnarement in transient states of desire and aversion that can derail therapy, and skillfully employ compassionate and discerning speech with the intent of relieving suffering.  This kind of moment-to-moment attentiveness and compassionate non-egoistic focus elevates the therapist’s practice from the merely professional to the spiritual.  Being fully present with a client becomes not only a means of earning a living or fulfilling a moral imperative but part of the therapist’s path of spiritual development. Every client encounter becomes part of the therapist’s learning process, not just in terms of becoming a better therapist, but in terms of becoming more fully human.

In considering the practice of psychotherapy as a form of spiritual endeavor, it can be useful to explore the psychotherapist’s role and craft from the vantage point of the Eightfold Noble Path.   For purposes of convenience, we will begin by dividing the The Eightfold Noble Path into its three traditional components of sīla (virtue), samādhi (concentration), and pañña (wisdom).

Sīla (Virtue)

The Buddhist concept of sīla is best exemplified by the Five Precepts: 1) Desisting from killing other beings, 2) Not taking what doesn’t belong to one, 3) Not harming others through acts of speech, 4) Refraining from sexual immorality, and 5) Abstaining from intoxicating substances.  Making sure one’s mind is unclouded by intoxicants and guarding against sexual boundary violations are part of the therapist’s minimum standard of care, as is the duty to prevent physical harm to self and others.  “Not taking what is not freely given” is relevant to fair billing practices and ethical financial dealings with clients and insurance companies.

What do Buddhists mean by harmful or wrong speech?  The Kakacūpama Sutta states that speech can be “timely or untimely, true or untrue, gentle or harsh, connected with good or with harm, and spoken with loving-kindness or inner hate.”  In therapy our words must arise out of loving-kindness, and be gentle, timely, true, and spoken with helpful intent.  Following this precept requires that we mindfully monitor our moods, intentions, and communication to attend to our countertransference, and to guard against our own anti-therapeutic behaviors.

Samādhi (Concentration)

Samādhi consists of  “right concentration,” “right mindfulness” and “right effort.”   The most precious gift one can give anyone is the quality of one’s attention.  As therapists, our goal, over and over, is to attend to this client/therapist interactive field in this moment, just as in meditation our goal is to attend to this breath in this moment, over and over.  In meditation, the meditator quickly discovers how easily attention slips off of the breath and wanders, and learns to keep bringing attention back to the breath without judgment. In psychotherapy we quickly learn how easily attention wanders from bare attention to the client/therapist field, and learn to keep bringing attention back to the client/therapist field without judgment.  Mindful concentration is an essential ingredient to forming a positive therapeutic alliance and to the kind of deep listening that nurtures the interpersonal space where transformation and healing occurs.  Whatever theory we operate within, our very next intervention, our very next interpretation, our very next action,  proceeds from the depth of our understanding of this very moment in this particular client/therapist interactive field.

We are also mindful of our tendency to identify with or distance ourselves from our clients in each passing moment of our therapy sessions.  If unwatched, our tendency is to take what is said and happening personally rather than just hearing it openly and freshly, with curiosity and wonder.  If the client is critical or resists our interventions, we can become angry and defensive; if the client is compliant and friendly, we can be co-opted or seduced.   We can think/feel that the client is “one of us” or “one of them.”  Our sense of self can become inflated as a client improves, or deflated as a client’s illness festers despite our best efforts.   Mindfulness listens to and watches all of this impartially: the contracting and expanding, the distancing and merging, the openness and the defensiveness, the criticism and the appreciation.   It is for or against none of it.  It does not get ensnared and entangled, or if it does, it notices the ensnarement and entanglement with equanimity and compassion.

As we listen, we strive to maintain a friendly attitude toward the client, toward ourselves, and toward our own experience, an attitude marked by mettā (loving-kindness), karuna (compassion), and upekkhā (equanimity). Loving-kindness implies an openness, receptivity, and willingness to accept ourselves just as we are and others just as they are, with equanimity, and without needing to distance ourselves.  We try not to become ensnared by states of aversion that separate us emotionally from the phenomena we are observing.

We can’t accurately understand clients if we emotionally distance ourselves from, feel separate from or superior to, or condemn or feel disgusted by them.  This doesn’t mean we approve of all our clients’s actions; we recognize how clients contribute to their own misery and the misery of others.  We understand, however, the conditions out of which these actions arise, and how we, faced with similar causes and conditions, might act no better.  We also understand how condemnation and disgust creates feelings of humiliation, shame, and rage, closing clients off behind walls of defensiveness, and making clients less able to comprehend the consequences of and their responsibility for their actions.  Words of instruction can be spoken from a compassionate heart, and decisive action to prevent harm can emerge from care and concern rather than anger and aversion.

Our friendly stance towards the client’s experiential world supports the client’s  acceptance, toleration, and integration of thoughts, feelings, attitudes and behaviors that have previously been objects of self-aversion.  Our ability to be with clients in a friendly, experience-near way is a precondition for clients to take a friendly, self-nurturing stance towards their own experiencing, which can ripen into wholeness and appropriate self-regard and self-care.  In many therapies this shift from self-loathing to appropriate self-caring is the turning point on which a successful outcome depends.

Pañña (Wisdom)

Wisdom refers to an understanding of dukkha (suffering/unsatisfactoriness), anicca (impermanence), anattā (non-self), and śūnyatā (emptiness/interbeing).  It posits that all phenomena are impermanent, devoid of a solid, unchanging essence, and co-existent as aspects of the entire web of being. As a corollary, all phenomena are ineffective as permanent solutions to the existential unsatisfactoriness of the human condition.

Dukkha (Unsatisfactoriness). Unsatisfactoriness is not only an essential fact of the client’s life, but also our own.  As we conduct a psychotherapy, we experience many unpleasant moments.  We need to sit unflinchingly with the client’s pain.  We also need to sit with our own pain: the ache of our own uncertainty and insufficiency, our moments of discouragement and hopelessness, our moments of boredom and disinterest, our own myriad personal distresses which reverberate in sympathetic harmony with the client’s problems.  If we withdraw emotionally or attentively, or react without mindful attention, breaks in the therapeutic alliance are inevitable.  If we can be attentive to these states, accept them, and hold them within our own spacious being, the therapy is more likely to succeed.

Annica (Impermanence). There is no solidity to existence; existence is always in a state of transformation.  Everything is always on its way to becoming something else.  This is as true for our world as for the client’s.  We often get caught up in psychological constructs which reify clients rather than seeing them as changing, fluid beings:  To the extent that we assume a static and unchanging world we become blind to the possibilities for change within each moment.

We can also cling rigidly to an idea of what it means to be a therapist.  Our own changing, flexible, protean self can become encrusted within a rigid conception of our role;  Our ability to flow and adapt can be obscured by a social role or personal character armor.  We can lose our ability to see the genuine therapeutic possibilities of this moment right here, right now, which may just call for something original, daring, and never-before-thought-of.  In a world that is constant transformation, the possibilities inherent in this moment may never come again.

In understanding anicca we understand that we are subject to causes and conditions just like all other beings.  One moment we’re attentive, the next moment lost.  One moment we’re brilliant, the next moment befuddled.  One moment we’re compassionate, the next moment threatened and self-centered.  We must be at home with all of this, as attentive as possible to our shifting mental states, accepting of change, and ever ready to seek a new state of balance.  In addition, we must be willing to allow the role of client to change as the client’s needs shift due to  either growth or deterioration.

Anattā (Non-Self). Since things are in a constant state of flux, there can be no such thing as an immutable identity to things.  Anattā is often misunderstood as being primarily an ontological statement, but it actually is intended to serve the pragmatic purpose of liberating us from our selfish preoccupations.  The more we understand anattā, the less likely therapy will be about the selfhood of the therapist.  Why work so hard to protect an identity that has only a quasi-existence?  Why cling tightly to images of ourselves as better, smarter, healthier, more knowledgeable, or more right than our clients?  If a client is angry with us, why get caught up in an identity narrative about being the aggrieved helper?  If the client improves, the value of our self doesn’t have to go up ten points, nor does our stock need to decline when therapy fails.  The client doesn’t need to get better for or stay sick for us.  With less of a sense of self to protect, we are freer to hear and open to the client.  When self-identification loosens, a natural connectedness to and caring for the suffering of others can manifest freely.  That connectedness and care is impeded by the need to protect oneself, and flows when attention to “me” and “mine” abates.

Śūnyatā (Emptiness/Interbeing).  Śūnyatā is usually translated as “emptiness,” although Thich Nhat Hahn’s “interbeing” seems a more helpful translation.  Interbeing is a natural consequence of impermanence and non-self,  pointing to the interconnectedness and interdependence of all phenomena.  Nothing exists except in interrelationship with everything else.  Clients do not exist separate from their families and social systems; clients and the clinical phenomena which they exhibit in therapy do not exist separate from the client/therapist interaction; Phenomena do not exist by themselves, but only as part of a field, and the arrow of causality within that field is always multidirectional.

While these insights aren’t new, it’s often hard to directly perceive the interdependent nature of things.  Western culture has a bias in favor of emphasizing independence and autonomy over interpersonal relatedness.  Our cultural and personal biases cause us to continually lapse into unbalanced and simplistic modes of thought that fail to take interbeing into account.  It’s often hard to see how we and our clients co-create phenomena during the complex and intense emotional pushes and pulls we experience within the therapeutic relationship.  Buddhist practice is one way to ground ourselves in an appreciation of interbeing during the most emotionally charged therapeutic interchanges.

Psychotherapists are supposed to know how to monitor their own emotional processes, to see complex interpersonal transactions with a minimum of defensiveness, and to use this monitoring and seeing in service of maintaining a therapeutic relationship that is focused on relief of the client’s suffering.  These expectations are taught in graduate school, but the emotional skills required to achieve them rarely are. All too often, training in psychotherapy has to do with the acquisition of skills that can be externally measured and quantified: the mastery of a body of facts and theories, the development of specific communication skills, the adherence to a manualized protocol.  Buddhist practice can be an important vehicle for developing emotional skills that are vital for the successful practice of psychotherapy, (and interpersonal life in general!) but are harder to teach: openness, receptivity, awareness of internal process, equanimity, compassion, and an enhanced sensitivity to inter-relatedness.

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On Not Killing

The Buddhist path is often characterized as consisting of three components: sila (ethics), samadhi (concentration), and panna (wisdom). The Five Precepts (Panca-Silani) are the foundation of ethics for Buddhist lay practitioners.  Unlike the biblical Ten Commandments, the precepts are not divine edicts, but are intended as training rules.  Buddhists observe them in order to live skillfully and happily in harmony with other beings, to obtain good karma and fortunate rebirth, and to make progress along the path to awakening.

The first and most important precept is the precept to refrain from destroying living creatures:

“Panatipata veramani sikkhapadam samadiyami.”

It’s the Buddhist version of the biblical Sixth Commandment (“Thou Shalt Not Murder”) and roughly parallels the Hindu/Jain doctrine of ahimsa (non-harming).

At first blush, it seems the easiest precept to follow.  Far easier, say, than never telling an untruth or maintaining complete sobriety.

The more one examines the precept, however, the more problematic it becomes.

What does it mean to refrain from destroying living creatures?

In India, the Jains sweep the ground in front of them so as not to inadvertently kill any insects.  Does the Buddha ask us to do the same?

As it turns out, no.  If we accidentally trample an insect, no bad karma is created.  This is because there was no intention to kill.  In addition (in some traditions) insects are thought to be lower on the sentience scale than large mammals, primates, cetaceans, etc., and killing them has less karmic import.

Intention is the key to karma.  Accidents, in general, do not create bad karma the way intentional acts do.

On the other hand, some accidents are almost predictable.  What if one goes about carelessly and heedlessly and accidentally kills another being?  A drunk driver doesn’t intend harm, but driving while intoxicated raises the odds that harm might occur.  Here in the West we consider that to be vehicular homicide.  Does this kind of unintentional but heedless killing create bad karma according to Buddhist doctrine?

What about the killing of animals for food?

The Buddha did not prescribe vegetarianism.   Buddhist monks are permitted to eat meat, for example, if it is put in their alms bowl by a lay supporter.  They are not permitted, however, to eat an animal that has been killed on their behalf.

As lay Westerners we have an endless variety of protein sources available to us that are not the result of killing animals: dairy products, unfertilized eggs, soy-based products, legumes, etc.  Should we refrain from eating killed animals?

Meat sold in supermarkets has not been killed specifically for our benefit.  There was no particular consumer in mind at the slaughterhouse at the moment the animal was killed. Is it therefore all right to buy meat in the supermarket?  Or is that disingenuous?  After all, if more people declined to buy meat, the law of supply and demand would result in a decrease in animal killing.

In addition to concerns about killing per se, there are also serious ethical concerns about the way animals are raised on modern factory farms.  Who is creating a greater moral offense: the hunter of wild game, or the agribusiness livestock breeder who is raising animals under unnatural circumstances?

Buddhist traditions vary in allowing or discouraging meat eating.  Some Buddhist traditions permit meat eating (e.g., fish in Thailand, yak meat in Tibet) and others discourage it.

And what of harmful pests: bed bugs, fleas, flies, mosquitoes, cockroaches, fire ants, and rodents?  Is one permitted to rid one’s home and neighborhood of them, or must one endure them, even when they are unsanitary or serve as a vector for serious infectious disease?

And what about bacteria and internal parasites?  Is one permitted to use antibiotics?

And what about the autoimmune system? Doesn’t the autoimmune system kill foreign living organisms all the time?

And what about killing in self-defense or to protect one’s family, neighbors or countrymen?

To complicate matters further, Mahayana Buddhism introduces the concept of “skillful means” (upaya kausalya).  Under certain circumstances one may violate precepts when one’s motivation is wholesome.

Tibetans, for example, venerate Pelgyi Dorje who assassinated King Langdarma almost 1,200 years ago.  Langdarma allegedly suppressed Buddhism and persecuted Buddhist monks, and Pelgyi Dorje killed him to preserve the Dharma for the benefit of all beings and to save Langdarma  from creating even worse karma for himself.

Similarly, in the Upaya-Kausalya Sutra, a virtuous sea captain named Great Compassion (the Buddha in a previous lifetime) is permitted to kill an assassin who plans on killing a cohort of 500 bodhisattvas who are aboard ship.  In doing so, Great Compassion is willing to be reborn in a Hell Realm as a consequence, but his act is morally commendable, and his karma is not as bad as it would have been had his motivation been impure.

I am raising a series of questions and resolving none.

It’s not my intention to cite this-or-that text in this-or-that tradition to support one answer or another.  I refer the interested reader to Peter Harvey’s excellent book [1] on the topic if they’re interested in exploring Buddhist ethical doctrine in greater depth.

Instead, I only wish to point out that things are not as easy or straightforward as they might initially seem.  When we vow to refrain from killing living beings, we are being invited into an exploration of how far we are willing to go to put the vow into practice.  Are we willing to allow ourselves to be killed by a tiger, as the Buddha did in a previous life in one of the Jataka Tales, so that her hungry cubs might live?  Are we willing to kill an intruder who is invading our home and threatening our family?  If we lovingly rescue spiders by carefully removing them from our homes, are we as loving with an infestation of cockroaches?  Are we willing to eat fish, but not beef?  Will we join pacifist protests when our country goes to war?  Where will be draw the line in our lives?

There is a famous Quaker anecdote about William Penn.  When Penn first became a Quaker, he still wore his ceremonial dress sword on formal occasions, as was the custom of the time.  He was aware, however, of the moral conflict between Quaker pacifist beliefs and sword-wearing, and asked George Fox for advice.  Fox replied “I advise thee to wear it as long as thou canst.”  When they met again a short time later, Penn no longer had his sword.  When Fox asked where it was, Penn replied “I have taken thy advice; I wore it as long as I could.”

This is what Buddhism asks us to do.  To investigate the circumstances of our lives.  To live with difficult questions and address them as best we can in the moment.  To see how far we can go to refrain from killing in our lives, knowing that the extent to which we are willing to go may change and evolve as we proceed along the path.

Rather than being absolutes, Buddhist training precepts are invitations to explore how our lives change as we take on certain ethical challenges.

As the Buddhist saying goes, “Ehipassiko:”  Come see for yourself.

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  1. [1] Harvey, P. (2000).  An Introduction to Buddhist Ethics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.