Friday, March 5, 2010

Passive-Aggressive Buddhist Moralists

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.


Barry said...

I've caught bits and pieces of this discussion, as it has appeared on Dangerous Harvests and other blogs.

For what it's worth, the Buddha could not have been more clear about the importance of ethics. Throughout the Pali Canon, he repeatedly says things like:

"One should do good and live a pure life; for none who is born can escape death." (AN 7:70; IV136-39)

The Buddha also showed no interest in discussing the "relativity" of his ethical teachings. He only repeats that the "Noble Ones" will live and act with humility, gentleness, friendliness, good speech and in other beneficial ways.

To acknowledge the Buddha's direction, and to strive to embody it has nothing to do with arrogance.

To point out that harsh language, lustful activity, intoxication and other behaviors are fundamentally afflictive has nothing to do with arrogance.

There are many paths we can walk, but not all paths lead to the cessation of suffering.

The Buddha often concluded his discussions of ethical activity with words like this:

"Do not be negligent, or else you will regret it later."

Nathan said...

I totally agree Barry. Thanks for the Pali Canon references.

gniz said...


It's funny because I really didn't have you in mind when i wrote today's piece, although clearly you at least partially inspired it! :)

I was also reading things at Treeleaf and stuff on BW's blog too. And I just sort of lumped everyone in together.

I apologize if any of it seemed like I was personally attacking you.

I want to be clear that I am not against any individual choosing to use the precepts or any ethical framework with which to view their behavior.

However, I do challenge the notion that on the whole these kinds of ethical or moral guidelines actually lead to better behavior.

I stand by my assertion that it is individuals who decide how to act based on their understanding and experience of the world. And that our ability to comprehend the impact of our behavior is as much a function of our insight as it is any formal cannon of ethics that may have been provided to us by a third party.

Insight can be attained through many methods (meditation, contemplation, therapy) but almost never through a list. A list may help some people but it's not for everyone, and I don't think it's a necessity for people who aren't interested in that sort of thing.

Uku said...

Nice post and comments! I agree, Barry. The Precepts and other guidelines for Buddhists should be really essential and really concrete and real. We can't follow them all the time, everyone of us makes mistakes. But those guidelines can really make some difference but only if we choose to practice the path wholeheartedly. Following The Precepts or Noble Eighfold Path without meditation is just following bunch of empty lines. Without clearing our deluded minds we can't cultivate prajna or sila. Samadhi, prajna and sila works all together. That's why devotion to practice Buddhism is essential. For me The Precepts are really important and concrete and they are my real guidelines. But I can't follow them all the time. Nishijima Roshi wrote in Dogen Sangha's The Precepts- leaflet:

The precepts are not theoretical or romantic. They are very concrete and practical. In this they reflect the fundamental character of the Buddhist religion. Buddhism is a practical religion. It is concerned with finding the right way to live. To live correctly is not easy. When we are beginning our Buddhist life we need some guidelines: some criteria by which to decide what we should do and what we should not do. The Precepts were created to fulfill that function. They were made to help us live properly and correctly. In other words, the precepts teach us how to live happy life.

[...]as Buddhists we realize that in our long life there will be many situations in which we will be unable to keep the precepts.[...]

Letting go, without attaching to The Precepts or other guidelines. Accepting the fact that everyone makes mistakes and by accepting that, we can try to be better human beings, try to follow the guidelines wholeheartedly. I think Buddhism is a very simple path in theory. But sigh... theory is just theory and practice in reality is usually something different. Practice means practicing the practice; practicing prajna, sila, samadhi. Dogen wrote Just be diligent in your practice at once.

Helmut said...

One can't meditate well when one's mind is turbulent due to a life lived by ones own feelings and preferences... Buddhist training is not about making you a nicer person, an improved self, if you will. The Precepts aren't commandments. A precept, by definition is a guide or teacher.
When one takes the Precept about killing it is often couched in terms like this:
"Today I undertake the rule of training to refrain from the taking of life" (Please note the "today" and the "refrain")
Buddhist practice, actual living practice, then means that we have to look at all the things we kill in order for ourselves to sustain life. We recognize that we all kill in the conduct of our daily lives, even vegetables are killed for us. So, what this Precept points to is, how can we mitigate the raw facts of live so that they comport more with a compassionate way of being on this earth? And as, hopefully, spiritual adults, how exactly can we take responsibility for all of our actions? Taking the precepts makes you uncomfortable because you have to face life head on. The discomfort (Dukkha) that we face as a result of life can be clarified and mitigated by and through the process of meditation and mindfulness.
The good news is that as the result of Buddhist training one begins to feel better.
The bad news is that as a result of Buddhist training one begins to EVERYTHING better: even the things we don't want to feel.

Nathan said...

Hi Uku,

Very much agree - meditation and the ethical teachings are in tandem. Without zazen and kinhin practice, the precepts would just be rigid dogma to me as well.


Nathan said...

Hi Gniz,

Thanks for the comments.

"I stand by my assertion that it is individuals who decide how to act based on their understanding and experience of the world. And that our ability to comprehend the impact of our behavior is as much a function of our insight as it is any formal cannon of ethics that may have been provided to us by a third party."

I think this makes plenty of sense, and some of my post should stand in accord with what you're saying.

As for people talking at BW's blog and Treeleaf, you're right, lots of moralizing - but I continue to wonder how much of it comes from experience and understanding, and how much of it is just pontificating?

I also can imagine that some of these ranters meditate a bit, but could give two shits about ethics, which is why I made the comments I made.

Ethics need not be a list, but I think anyone who contributing beneficially to a community or even just a family, has some sense of what is helpful to others and what isn't. One doesn't need a particular list to be ethical, but it's really helpful to have a list to work with until that list dissolves into one's everyday actions.

Sara said...

Really interesting post Nathan, and great to see so much discussion. thanks:)

Trevor said...

I'm with you, man.
Keep up the good work.
And how come my pic doesn't show up right on these comments?

Nathan said...

Hey Trevor,

Your pic seems ok on this end. I know a few others have been having issues with comment posts lately, so maybe it's a Blogger malfunction.


Algernon said...

Break a precept with full and honest attention to the process and the result, and the usefulness of the precepts presents itself.

Anonymous said...

Hey Nathan,

So, coming from a temple that barely promotes Teisho, Reading, etc, when I took lay ordination, my teacher surprised me by assigning -not a Deshimaru or Kodo Sawaki book- Buddhist Lay Ordination Lectures by your own Katagiri Roshi.

It's really a lovely book, and we have a couple of copies with the handmade paper jacket, which contains shreds of Kesa and Rakusu fabric mixed into the paper. It also features dark silhouettes of Katagiri teaching. Hands up, hands down- could be any Zen teacher, and the whole book is very intimate.

I wanted to respond to what Gniz said with lecture two, where Katagiri introduces the idea of the yard stick.

Gniz Says:
However, I do challenge the notion that on the whole these kinds of ethical or moral guidelines actually lead to better behavior.

Katagiri says that ordination is called Tokudo Shiki, which means "The ceremony of acquiring a yardstick...According to Buddhism, the yardstick is Right Dharma...Right Dharma means [the] harmony...Right. Beyond good or bad, right or wrong."

I don't think that any Zen teacher ever believes that precepts will make you a better a person. And I also think Katagiri mean "Beyond better" too.

My teacher told me that all the precepts are contained within Zazen. If you have taken the precepts and chant the Kesa sutra after morning Zazen, you are/will continue to keep the precepts.

If you think that's hard to swallow, well, Deshimaru believed that simply putting on a rakusu- anyone's rakusu- would change you for the rest of your life. And when I asked about this "superstition" I was corrected that this was a fact, not a superstition.

I believe that the precepts are much like our other traditions in Zen practice- they demand our attention as to bring about mindfulness. Why do we step into the Zendo with the left foot? Is the left foot first, the best, or better?

We step in with the left foot so that when we accidently misstep with the right, we're aware of it. I think the precepts work in the same vein of "unholiness." There's nothing right or wrong, there's just the yardstick, and every action lands somewhere.

However, I do challenge the notion that on the whole these kinds of ethical or moral guidelines actually lead to better behavior.

Nathan said...

Hi Flying Pig,

Thanks for your comments. Was so nice to see Katagiri appear. The forms definitely create opportunities to be aware, awake each moment. And the precepts are the same in that way.

However, if we leap to the absolute - that the precepts are contained within zazen or within any of our forms - trouble can easily happen. It's really not about better or worse behavior for me; it's about how I'm entering into the world every moment. Life seems less sloppy and suffering producing when I'm working the precepts.

Algernon - a good point. Bows.

Anonymous said...


I like your phrase, "Working the precepts." I didn't really think of it like that, but instead was thinking of how one might mistakenly treat the precepts like the ten commandments, like something memorized and hard lined (please excuse the gross generalization- it's just for times sake)

I was really intrigued with Bernie Glassman's piece on applying a 12 step approach to Zen, including the precepts in that approach. When I think about "working a precept", like some friends of mine "work a step", it seems more body/mind action oriented, rather than staring at some piece of paper or attaching to some notion of right or wrong.

The 12 steps are to be repeated over and over, and they change with each given situation or stage in life. They can be deeply philosophical or completely practical.

My teacher employs a very simple, "Sit Zazen" approach to teaching the precepts. He also hates to talk. But I'm interested in seeing what happens as Zen becomes more third generational (My teacher is a 2nd gen). I'm very interested in what Shogaku Zen Seminary will do for western Zen, and I'm hopeful I'll come to grips with Zen discipline and Zen psychology.

As usual, thanks for the provocative topics, which I assume would be a great full-time job for you!

-AJ (the flying pig)

Nathan said...

Hi AJ,

Interesting that you mention the 12 steps - our sangha will be holding it's second annual 12 steps and Buddhism retreat next weekend. Our guiding teacher has long been a member of a 12 step group, and others in the sangha have been as well. It's a really rich field of practice, from what I've seen.


Buddhist_philosopher said...

Algernon's comment made me smile :) Great post and indeed, some wonderful comments. As an 'aggressive-aggressive' Buddhist moralist, I have to insist that the precepts are essential to productive meditation and wisdom. Slavishly following them alone won't win you any mindfulness or insight, but it sets up a wonderful foundation for the further stages to flourish.

Dhammapada 281

Guarded in speech,
well-restrained in mind,
you should do nothing unskillful
in body.
Purify these three courses of action.
Bring to fruition the path that seers have proclaimed.