For some reason, I'm enjoying engaging the posts over at Gniz's blog about Brad Warner's blog. (Ha! That's a mouthful, isn't it?) Anyway, I wrote the following comment on Gniz's post yesterday, and then returned today to find myself lumped in a group entitled "passive-aggressive Buddhist moralists" in Gniz's current post. Mind you, he didn't call me out personally, but you read what I said below, and then Gniz's post, you'll find I fit in pretty nicely.
without sustained, deep attention to the precepts or other ethical teachings of Buddhism, meditation practice probably won't do anything in terms of kindness, compassion, and beneficial action.
We have to make the effort to pay attention to moral/ethical issues - to pay attention to how we interact with others and the impact those interactions might have. I see a lot of bitching and moaning online about this and that - Warner's comments section is a veritable dukkha train in itself - and seeing all that, I have to wonder how many of these people just meditate, and really have little interest in the ethical teachings.
Ok, so I'll admit it - I think the ethical teachings are important. Very important. Gniz has the opposite view:
See, this other moral code called the 10 commandments also hasn't made people behave any better over the last few thousand years. In fact, I'd say the success rate of the Ten Commandments is pretty abysmal. There's been all kinds of wars and killing and rapes and thievery by Christians, Buddhists, and just about any other group of humans you could name.
If trying to adhere to a strict moral code such as the precepts makes you feel better, great. I'm not going to tell you to stop adhering to them. But this insistence on the value of precepts is actually rather silly, in my opinion. I've been saying this for years. We've got plenty of examples of why and how the precepts simply don't work. In fact, on the whole they clearly don't make a bit of difference.
Morality and ethics are more a function of community than they are of religion. A list taped to your wall isn't going to make you a better person.
First of all, it seems to me that much of what Buddha taught had to do with community. What the hell point is there to awakening to this life if it has nothing to do with how you function in this world? If Buddha's goal was to teach a completely solitary path, he would have skipped the whole sangha part, and maybe the whole teaching part as well. He had that option, according to every version of his biographical story I have ever seen. Upon awakening, he thought "What now?" and wondered if going around talking to others would be fruitless. That he chose in the end to teach and have a community should say a lot about the direction and orientation of his teachings, all solitary cave dwelling monks aside.
The comparison Gniz makes between the Ten Commandments and the Buddhist precepts is a false one. The precepts are not black and white directives. They are supposed to be subtle guidelines that shake our attachments to wanting what we don't have, and not wanting what we do have. In addition, they are mindfulness trainings for our interactions with others, reminding us again and again to take another look at what we're doing, saying, and thinking about others and ourselves.
As for the precepts not working, and all the terrible, horrible examples of failures out there - well, how does anyone know for sure what it is that comes from "working"? Anyone who reads this blog knows that I am firmly in the camp of non-violence and have never supported any war in any place at any time. However, I also believe that any moment of beneficial, caring action that occurs within any setting is an awakening. If a solider is able to break through the us-them paradigm for even a single moment, that's a "working" in my opinion. It may be tiny, and surrounded by a ton of misery, but it's still there.
Here's another interesting section from Gniz's post:
Religious moralizing breeds arrogance. People that are very religious believe that they are somehow behaving better than everyone else, even though there is absolutely NO EVIDENCE to show that religious folk on average behave better than non-religious.
I totally agree with this. In fact, I know a fair number of people who are atheists and/or secular humanists who are doing just fine without religious codes. However, most of them would probably tell you that they are plenty interested in ethics, and reflect often on how to be a more ethical person in this life. If you don't believe me, pick up any humanist publication, read it thoroughly, and then try and tell me these people aren't deeply considering ethics. Good luck is all I have to say that one. Religions may highly promote the value of ethics, but the value of ethics is way beyond any religion.
Ultimately, although I disagree with much of Gniz's conclusions, I have to say this: he is right in that neither the precepts nor any other ethical teaching make anyone "a better person." None of these teachings are "out there" creating anything. They only function within our lives, moment by moment, to the extent that we engage them - otherwise, they are just lists taped to the wall.