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Basic Zen – Ethics (Talk 2 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 2 of 2)

By Zoketsu Norman Fischer | May 1, 2001


Transcribed and edited by Murray McGillivray and Barbara Byrum

Last time we were talking about ethics in Buddhism, and we were discussing the difference – if there is a difference – between the kind of ethical teachings that we received as children and what we are aspiring to now. It was very interesting, because you don't usually think about that. What did you receive as a child as far as a sense of the ethical universe?

I think we're all, to some degree or another, conditioned as westerners by our Judeo-Christian background. Ethics – right and wrong – is not just a matter of judgment or convenience. It's Judgment with a capital J. If we do good, then we are embraced and held by God, and if we don't do good, we are rejected out-of-hand by a stern, father-like figure. So even though very few of us believe this image of God, it's still very compelling, and there are shadows of it, I think, in our hearts and minds. So we have a tremendous psychological investment in being good, which is tied up with our sense of worthiness or unworthiness as human beings.

When the Ten Commandments were given on Mount Sinai, it is such a dramatic thing – thundering noise and smoke and clouds and fire. And then about two and a half minutes later they build a golden calf, and they're bowing down and making sacrifices. They have to smash the Ten Commandments and start over again. So that's the story that we all have somewhere in our psyches.

Of course, as we all know, in classical Buddhism the metaphysical ground for this question of good and evil is totally flipped. There's no imagery whatsoever of a stern God, no theistic imagery. It's a practical matter, and this is why good conduct, which includes the almost systematic cultivation of a warmhearted feeling for others, is considered to be a necessary part of the inner housecleaning without which the path is impossible. The point of ethical conduct is simply to purify the mind and heart so that you can do meditation. And when you do meditation, then there can be insight. If there's insight into how things are, then there's liberation; there's freedom from suffering; freedom from the conditioned world. Freedom from the world of good or bad! There's a kind of sense of possibility of living a joyful, free life. It doesn't mean a licentious liberation. "Now that I'm ‘liberated' I can do whatever I want-yes, I can do whatever I want!" But what I want to do is goodness. I think that's the sense of it. So in other words, rather than doing goodness under compulsion, one does goodness as an overflowing of one's spirit in just being alive. There's a sense that for the arhat, the "perfected one" in the classical Buddhist path, all of his or her actions will be naturally good actions. They will be wholesome actions, without restraint.

There's an interesting sutra in the Majjhima Nikhaya, Sutra 39, the Maha-Assapura Sutta, in which the Buddha explains the entire path. He gives the thirteen steps, one building on the other, toward the goal of liberation. First of all – and this is, I think, instructive – you have to cultivate or give rise to a feeling of shame and fear of wrongdoing. Some of you know these terms, hiri and atapa in Pali. This sounds like guilt to us; we immediately project guilt onto that. But it doesn't mean guilt. It is the unwholesome feeling of dread, or some sort of negative uncomfortable feeling when you do something that is unwholesome, that is not profitable for the path. You have to have a feeling that you don't want to do that because it makes you feel bad.

First you have to have an inner sense that you feel uncomfortable, even if nobody sees, and second, it matters to you if somebody does see and complains to you. These two characteristics, which are slightly different from one another, are called the Guardians of the World, and they are the first things that you have to develop. Then, after that, you have to purify your verbal conduct. Then you purify your mental conduct, which means the kind of thoughts that you validate and the kind of thoughts that you let go. Then you have pure livelihood; restraint of the senses (you're present with sensuality, rather than grabbing); moderation in eating; wakefulness or alertness; and then the ninth is mindfulness and full awareness. This gives you the capacity to abandon the hindrances of sense desire, sloth, ill will, restlessness and doubt. These gradually melt away, and then you can concentrate; you can really meditate deeply. And when you can do that, you get knowledge of the marks of conditioned existence: impermanence and non-self. Then you get liberation and happiness.

Because the arhat is unconditioned, lives in the unconditioned, and is beyond conditions, there is the important question whether an arhat, the perfected one, is immune from causality. This is discussed in many sutras in the Pali Canon. In the first part of my remarks about the Pali Canon, it's pretty clear that everybody is subject to karma, retribution from past action. There is no wiping out karma. Karma is indelible. However, because of subsequent actions that are powerfully wholesome, you can purify yourself, so that, although the karmic results still come to you, they don't come to you as virulently as they might have otherwise come. Regardless of how they come to you, because you're purified you receive them in such a way that it mollifies their strength. In the Buddha's life there are many examples of bad karmic results coming to the Buddha after his enlightenment. He was famous for having stomach aches. Did you know that? The Buddha had a lot of stomach aches and backaches and various kinds of ailments. How could the Perfected One have ailments? Well, bad karma in a past life.

There's another interesting sutra, the Mahakammavibhanga Sutta in the Majjhima Nikaya, that's very hard to read because it's a formulaic repetition and very lengthy, but what it basically amounts to is that there are people who do very bad actions and get excellent results – happiness and wealth. There are other people who do very bad actions, and terrible things happen as a result. There are people who do good actions, and terrible things happen as a result – they lose all their money, their house burns down. And other people who do good actions and very good things come as a result of that.

So whatever you think of that, the point of it is that there's an acknowledgement in the earliest Buddhist teachings that karma is not linear and simple-minded. One cannot predict outcomes. However, it seems to be, and this is the main thing, that the truth of karma is yogically affirmed. In other words, in the West reason and empirical evidence are sufficient to ascertain the truth of something. During the Christian eras there was an additional way to ascertain, which was Scriptural. But in Buddhism the way to ascertain truth has always been the verified experience of a yogic adept. So if a Buddha sees the truth of karma, then that's considered to be the authoritative truth of its being so.

But we don't need to depend on the authority of the Buddha. I think that throughout our own experience of meditation, it becomes very clear, by minutely observing the mind, how bad, unwholesome activity leads to fairly quick, negative short-term results. And the opposite is true. I firmly believe, based on my feeling of knowing it from experience, that if I make effort to do what's good, the results of that will be positive. And the reverse is true. Even though I don't necessarily anticipate that everything will go great for me in my life, nevertheless, it's not a contradiction to believe that. I do believe it quite firmly.

This is a practice: to cultivate positive conduct and to let go of negative conduct. It doesn't flow from my inner worth as a human being one way or the other. It's a potential that I have to cultivate. I think that this early Buddhist teaching is also a Zen teaching. I don't think that Zen denies any of this or has any improvement whatsoever to make on it. If you study Dogen, you see references to this kind of paying attention to conduct. But of course, in the Zen approach these kinds of teachings are not seen as literal. They're seen as metaphorical or as skillful means. In Zen and other kinds of Mahayana Buddhism, there's a kind of a collapse of goal and path together, instead of a linear, almost scientific, way to get results. Mahayana Buddhism is a basic deconstruction of that whole idea and says that in every moment of the path the entire result is there.

That's why in Zen the sensibility about right conduct is a little bit different. Instead of being only a question of housekeeping and a preliminary to meditation practice – although it is that also – every moment of conduct is the whole path. So when I practice right conduct, I'm not just doing some preliminary work so that I can get to the goal that I'm seeking. Every moment of conduct – on the cushion, off the cushion, whatever I'm doing – brings up the whole truth and challenges me utterly. Furthermore, while in the classical teachings with the graduated path, with the linear, logical approach, it almost seems clear: This is good, this is bad, this is wholesome, this is unwholesome. In the Zen or Mahayana approach, however, with the totalizing of each moment of conduct, it becomes much more difficult to discern. The ambiguities of conduct are clear. We all know this from studying the precepts. The different levels of understanding the precepts acknowledge that this is so. So conduct then becomes much more problematic.

So then, just to say one more point about the Zen approach, I'll refer again to something that I talked about in the Seminar some months ago, Case Two of the Mumonkan, "Hyakujo's Fox." Hyakujo is the abbot of Hyakujo Mountain. He's giving talks every day, and there's this old guy who is constantly there attending the talks in the back of the room. One day the old guy stays behind. Hyakujo says, "Good morning." "Well," the old guy says, "I'm not really this old guy that you see in front of you. I'm actually a fox, and that's because many generations ago I was the abbot of this mountain, and as the abbot I was asked the question, ‘Does the enlightened person fall into the law of causality?' I answered, ‘No, the enlightened person is free from the law of causality,' and because of this I was born for five hundred lives as a fox. Now can you please free me from this fox birth?" The fox then asks, "Is the enlightened person free from the law of causality or not?" And the present Hyakjo says, "No, the enlightened person is not in another territory from causality." The old man says, "Oh, thank goodness, I'm freed from my fox body," and the next day they went out and found the fox's body. They bury it and give it a priest's burial – a very high, honorable burial for this fox carcass. Later that evening Hyakujo gives a dharma talk about this, and his student Huangbo shows up and says in the middle of the talk, "What if this old guy had given the right answer, then what?" And Hyakujo says, "Come closer," and Huangbo comes closer – and you can imagine this drama – and when he gets just close enough, he whacks Hyakujo across the face. I think the idea is that Hyakjo was going to whack him, but he whacked him first. Then Hyakujo says words of great approval and accord between the two of them.

The idea is that Huangbo put his finger on the accupressure point of the story, which is to say that it's not as simple as a right answer or wrong answer. It's really not the case that it's bad to be a fox and good to be a priest; that there's good karma and bad karma; and they are in quite different realms from each other. In other words, it's an explosion of the step-by-step, black and white sense of morality. The commentary says, "If you can see this" – the point of the case, – "you will know that the old man enjoyed his five hundred blessed lives as a fox." In other words, we hear this story, and we say, "Oh the wrong answer. That's terrible. He shouldn't have been born as a fox." But actually it turns out that that's exactly what he needed to do. He could accept the five hundred lives as a fox as something joyful and useful, even though it was a bad karmic result. Then the poem says,

Not falling, not evading,

Two faces of one die.

Not evading, not falling,

Hundreds and thousands of regrets.

So in actual fact, for all of us, whether we're arhats or not, freedom from karma and being subject to karma are not two different things. It's only because we are thirsting for some other territory to be in, other than the one we're in, that causes us to look at it like that. There isn't any other territory to be in. There aren't steps and stages toward a future goal that we're going to arrive at. There's the reality of our lives. If you hold to an idea of freedom or detachment or purity, and you think it's over there and you're going toward it, then you're off. That already is causing suffering. On the other hand, if you're enmeshed in your karma, without any freedom at all within your karma, then you're definitely suffering, with no way out.

So this is the radical thing about our practice – to practice ordinary conduct in ordinary life; to take on the ordinary world completely as the ordinary world; and yet to recognize the ultimate in the ordinary at all points. Our practice is knowing that there isn't any other place to be but the ordinary world as long as you're alive, regardless of what your station in life is. To be in the ordinary life without being enmeshed by it or caught by it. In other words, you enjoy your life as a fox, knowing that even though you look like a fox, you're actually a priest, or even though you look like a priest, you're actually a fox. That is, not seeing the difficult situations that happen in life as tragedies that shouldn't have happened to me, because I didn't deserve this. But rather seeing them as challenges, seeing them as vehicles, as avenues for development.

There are always thousands of regrets, no matter what happens. I think that's the nature of being a human being. But that itself is beautiful, even wonderful. I think of Issa's famous haiku that he wrote on visiting the grave of his little girl,

The world of dew is the world of dew,

And yet.

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