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Basic Zen – Ethics (Talk 1 of 2)

By: Norman Fischer, Zoketsu Norman Fischer | 05/01/2001
In Topics: Buddhist Ethics / Precepts, Precepts

Norman talks about Right Action from the Zen perspective.

Ethics (Talk 1 of 2)

By Zoketsu Norman Fischer | May 1, 2001


Transcribed, abridged, and edited by Murray McGillivray and Barbara Byrum


The meditation practice we were doing – just to sit, not trying to do anything, or attempt to get anywhere in the meditation, but just to be there, with awareness, just simple awareness – is Buddha. Just the awareness is consciousness itself, is Buddha. It's a very profound thing, you know, to just let the mind's business rest, and just allow simple awareness to arise in response to every moment. And then you feel-you don't say these words, I think, but you feel-whatever arises is the unfolding of the dharma. That simple awareness, which isn't really you or me or anybody, is just a natural arising of awareness, is the Buddha.

But I often say, and I really feel, that our practice is all about conduct when we get up from the cushion. I guess there's so much focus on meditation because we're such an un-meditation culture that we all need a break. Also, meditation is sort of exotic and unusual and almost the opposite of what we've all been brought up into, and conditioned into. But I don't think our practice is all about meditation and that we're supposed to become experts in meditation. I think the relevance of meditation in Buddhist practice is about conduct, and you can't really have beautiful, harmonious, peaceful conduct unless you have meditation practice. In other words, to find out how to conduct yourself, to find out how to have beautiful conduct, you need meditation practice. Dogen famously said that zazen, meditation, has nothing to do with sitting, standing, walking, or lying down. That ultimately the meditation practice has to do with this quality of being completely present in the way that we were present when we were sitting-present with a kind of global acceptance of what's there.

One teacher that I have a lot of confidence in and that I look to as a mentor is an American monk ordained in the Theravada tradition named Adjan Sumedho. He was at Spirit Rock, and he called me up-I thought he was gone but he invited me up to visit him-so I was up there today and did part of the retreat with him. We were practicing like we were practicing just now, and he was saying early in the morning, as we were sitting, "Just what arises, it's like this. This is what it is. It's just like this: the feeling of the body, the mood, the thought. It's just like this. No need to evaluate it or change it or do anything with it. Every moment something comes, and it's there. It's just like that. It may be pleasant or unpleasant. Things arise. Just to see, just to be aware of them, let them be what they are."

So when we practice and train this way in meditation, that's when, I think, little by little, or perhaps all of a sudden, if we're dramatically inclined, you feel a big space opening up in all directions. In other words, I think that the feeling of "me" is a feeling that's rather confined. You feel it as something confined, and it's uncomfortable because it's very small, and that's why if something gets in the way of it, it's very annoying. But when you let go of that, in a situation like meditation, and you can just be there, you really feel a spaciousness and a relief. It's a great relief, you know, not to have to be anybody for that little short time, and in the midst of that space, I think that the feeling you're this or that, or somebody, just fades away. You don't make some big intentional effort to forget about that. You just focus the awareness on what's there, and without thinking about it, you just fade away in some fundamental sense, and life comes up. Life comes to the fore. Instead of "me," life appears. It's the flow or the rush of life that is always coming and going – it's nice, it's not nice, it's depressed, or whatever, but you know it doesn't make that much difference in this spaciousness of it. When there's room for things, they can be what they are, without any of the denial of them or trying to make them pretty. But they're not as bad when we're not trying to fight with them. Just things coming and going. And you realize after a while that this strong sensibility we have about "me" is really a very persuasive and powerful habit, and in the end, I think, one sees how unsuccessful that habit is in the light of a feeling of our being a manifestation of life. Why limit ourselves?

In a way the point is not that you find peace – although that's very nice – the point is that you train your mind in this feeling of spaciousness. The reason that I'm focusing so much on this is that I think that the feeling of spaciousness, and the experience of what your life is like when you're not putting your energy into the smallness of yourself, is the fundamental basis of ethical conduct. I think that is the source of conduct, because I think that unless you have some appreciation for that spaciousness, then ethical conduct becomes something that's very uptight. I don't see how you could actually practice real ethical conduct when you're nervous and uptight in that way, so focused on or self-identified with what's right and wrong in this small, tight way. It's very difficult for me to see how you could practice what I would consider to be beautiful conduct or ethical conduct in that condition.

I think ethical conduct really requires that we feel some palpable relationship to the bigness of life, to the flow of life outside of just our own interests. I don't see how there could be ethical conduct without some connection in that way with everybody's life, with all of life. So it's good that meditation practice is pleasant and interesting, because that encourages us to do it, and then in the process of doing it, we will bump into that space sometimes.

It's clear to me that the whole point of spiritual practice is not taking a break or having high experiences of the absolute, so much as it is just how we're living on a moment by moment basis, how we conduct our life all the time. So that's why I think in Zen practice the attitude is really good: just do the meditation when the bell rings, and then when it's not time, do something else.

The great manual of Buddhist practice by the fifth-century monk Buddhaghosa is called the Path of Purification. The goal and the path of Buddhism is the path of purification. It just seems to be the case that when you quiet the mind and let yourself just be intensely present – just there without any jobs to do or anything you're supposed to accomplish or any place you're supposed to get – then you really get to notice the condition of your mind and spirit. It becomes quite clear, if not immediately, then eventually, and you become aware of your mind, and you really see your conduct and its consequences for your life and for your state of mind. This becomes, naturally, without trying to do anything, very apparent, particularly in a longer retreat where you're sitting with some intensity.

I think we all know about karma as a doctrine, as an idea, that what you do really matters. That we all always receive the consequences of our conduct; that our conduct conditions our mind. We all know that. But when you sit, it's no longer something you believe, or something that you feel must be true. You really get to see it unfold in front of your eyes, sometimes painfully. It's not unusual in sesshin for people to feel many regrets, or shame for conduct that they've done in the past, or that they're doing now, that they didn't realize was not good conduct. Not unusual. Sometimes the painfulness of your conduct manifests as literal physical pain in the body. One way or the other, the way karma unfolds becomes clear to you without your trying.

So if you have unwise ways or selfish ways of conducting yourself, they will eventually become clear to you in your sitting practice, and the painfulness of them will be manifested. And it's not that we should be unselfish, or that the good Buddhist thing to do is to have good conduct. It's just that selfishness appears quite clearly as self-destructiveness. You really get to see that.

Your wish to let go of selfishness is not some moralistic thing, like it's good to do that. It's more like you really see how painful it is, and you really want to put it down. It becomes natural for you to do that, and you don't have to work at it, in the same way that you don't have to work at not putting your hand on a hot burner on the stove. It's not hard to train yourself not to do that, because all you have to do is do it once and then after that, you never do it again. You feel the painfulness of wrong conduct, and naturally, through the process of your sitting and getting up, and sitting and getting up, and observing how it is for you to do things the way you do them, the conduct, the way that you behave, clears up, and you just find yourself, even without any intention to do so, behaving in a different way. This takes some time, but it really happens.

So that's why meditation practice, I think, is very relevant. It's the basic ground for ethical conduct. First, you experience through your sitting that you are really not anything other than connection. In the arising of things within awareness, you feel that everything is present there. You feel, in other words, as I was saying before, that you're just in this particular place and time, and life appears like this. And that life is connected everywhere to all of life. Then, also, there is the converse: you see when self-centeredness prevails, how painful that is. It really feels like a fire that you want to put out, and, little by little, it goes out.

So based on this fundamental view of ethical conduct, coming out of meditation practice, the actual rough and tumble difficulty of getting through the day, with all the complexities that arise in human relationships, becomes something very interesting and challenging. Ethical precepts no longer appear as a set of rules for conduct or good behaviors. Instead, you see ethical conduct as an extension of the craft of awareness that comes out of your meditation practice, as applied awareness in ever more complex situations. Once you see the power of just such a simple thing as basic presence – simple, unconstructed, unadorned presence, awareness, without anything added onto it, like "me" – then you see it's really important to figure out how to apply that. Is it only something that exists when you're sitting on the cushion? How do you make that work and apply that to the very complicated situations we find ourselves in this world? It becomes, in other words, an interesting kind of craft, something very challenging.

It's easy to meditate – sitting on a cushion – when you set aside time for it and the conditions are very good. But those moments are quite rare, it turns out. How do you meditate when the conditions are terrible? When somebody's shouting at you next to your face and your heart is pumping? Or when you're in a tremendous hassle with a relative over sums of money, or with a colleague over the way you do something? How do you meditate then? That becomes a very interesting problem, you know, and you really want to figure that out; you really want to work on that.

So then, how do you do it? This is where all the various traditional moral precepts, Zen precepts, and all the different moral teachings, come in. In a way, and I'm not going to go into the sixteen Bodhisattva precepts now, and there are different versions and moral codes, but in a way most of them come down to the same thing. As Jesus said, "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." It pretty much comes down to that.

So you're always returning. You know, you realize, from your experience that it's very reliable, even though it may go against social convention or what we're told on a popular level, you realize that unselfishness and inclusiveness is very reliable. Ultimately, in the long run, that it is the essence of right conduct. I think anybody would at least subscribe to that as an idea. Whether they feel it or not is another story, but everybody would subscribe to that as an idea.

The more complex the situation is, the more difficult it is to know "That's right," or "That's wrong." Very difficult. Especially, I think, when it comes to another person. It is almost impossible to say "That's wrong!" Very difficult to say, I think, what somebody else should do. To me it's just like a nonsensical thing, to look at somebody else and say, "You broke a moral precept!" I mean, it might look that way; it might be that you can't see it any other way; and it might also be that because of the situation you might be required to make such a judgment and do something about that. Maybe you would have to do that. But you would never really know what that person's circumstances were, or the trajectory of cause and conditions that caused that action to take place. You would never really know.

It's easier, I think, to make a judgment about oneself. For oneself, it's possible to feel inside, "That was really the wrong thing to do. I know that, because I can feel that." You could see the consequences of those actions, and you come to uncover your own motivations. But it is very difficult in the case of another person, based on the recognition that it really is hard to tell in complex situations what's right, and that you never really know.

That's why it seems to me that in ethical conduct the most important thing is to maintain a spirit of flexibility and openness. Even though very often you really have to act, and sometimes you have to act decisively and strongly, you have to admit that if you really think about it, you don't quite know what's right. When we have to act decisively, that's when we really get agitated and think, "This is RIGHT, and that's WRONG!" I think that makes our decisive action much more difficult-much more difficult to accomplish skillfully, and especially much more difficult to sustain, because I think we all really know that we don't know. And the more we assert our knowing what's right, the more we feel inside that small voice of doubt, which we ought to be acknowledging from the start.

This flexible, open attitude that I'm speaking of is based on two factors. First, in our meditation practice you really know that our connection to our heart and compassion are the most important things. You know that connection to life is the most important and most fundamental thing. So you always know that although something may be wrong, it should be done, because of compassion. You can't be too focused on right and wrong when you have compassion as a motivation. And secondly, there is the recognition of the spaciousness or the just-is-ness of things – that experience, to which you return over and over again, and which you more and more inspires your life. How could you see anything being right or wrong in some ultimate sense in the midst of the experience that things just are. That's all. It's not right, not wrong. It just is.

Because of compassion, you really have to be flexible and have a spaciousness and wideness about what's right and what's wrong. So again, I'm talking about an attitude. This is the attitude that I think naturally you have with your practice. You may find it necessary sometimes to take action in the world, or in your personal life, that's strong and uncompromising, based on a judgment that you are forced to do that. And then you have to choose what's right and act. These are the defining moments in our lives, when, by circumstances, that's what we have to do. But still, I feel that this attitude that I'm speaking about of openness and flexibility around the fundamental nature of right and wrong still has to be there. We still have to recognize compassion as the fundamental thing, even compassion toward our enemies. And even though, in this human world, we're forced into these kinds of actions, and we have to play out our roles, we have to remember, and allow ourselves to be conscious of the fact, that we don't really know what's right.

So I feel very sure myself so far – I say so far because I don't know, maybe tomorrow it will all look different – that if we maintain an attitude like that , we will maximize, first of all, our ability to sustain those courses of action, and secondly, our success in doing them. If we're not successful in the short run, then for sure in the long run, in the big scope of things, we can be successful.

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