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History of Precepts 1

By: Norman Fischer, Zoketsu Norman Fischer | 04/15/2009
Location: Brooklyn Zen Center
In Topics: Buddhist Ethics / Precepts, Precepts

First of two part series on the History of Precepts. Norman first gave this talk at the Dharma Seminar on April 1, but the recording did not take. This talk was given at teh Brooklyn Zen Center on April 15th.

History of Precepts 1

By Zoketsu Norman Fischer | April 15, 2009
Location: Brooklyn Zen Center, Brooklyn, NY

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


Well, it's nice to be here, again. I love this spot, a great place and a great community, and I've heard that lately you've been studying precepts. There's been a precepts study group, and many of you are interested in really examining Zen and Buddhist ethics. In fact, at home in my Dharma Seminar that meets in California, we've also been embarking on a study of the precepts, and so I wanted to give you the first talk that I gave in that seminar.

So now let's think about ethics and morality from the standpoint of Buddhism. I'm going to make some big statements that are debatable, but I think, in general, probably fair statements. Let's say that in Buddhism there is the assumption that human beings are both naturally good and bad. In other words, there's the assumption that we are potentially capable of beautiful, ethical conduct, of completely natural human dignity, of tremendous acts of kindness and love, but that there's definitely a tendency in us towards confusion, which twists our highest capabilities and all too often turns them sour.

One of my favorite quotations from early Buddhist sutras is in one of the collections of the Pali canon, and this quotation is echoed in many of the Mahayana sutras. In the Pali canon the Buddha says something like this to the disciples, "This mind (or "this heart," because it's the same word in Asian languages), oh monks, is luminous, only it is defiled by adventitious defilements from outside." This little passage, which is the beginning of about a one page little sutra, is the germ of the whole Mahayana Buddhist idea of Buddha-nature, or natural or inherent awakening. What it's saying is that the nature of the heart of the human being, of the soul, of our consciousness is luminous, which is to say its nature is light, literally, and also figuratively light, and joyful and happy and good. That's its nature, but "adventitious defilements from outside" of it have messed it up and covered it over. In effect, that's what it's saying: things from the outside have come and covered it up, so that its light may not be apparent, even though it's there. And that's why there's a path. That's why spiritual cultivation is a necessity, so that little by little through cultivation you can remove these defilements, allowing the light that's already there to shine through.

Now of course we would right away ask, "Well, where do these outside defilements come from, and where do they start? How come they were there in the beginning? Who's at fault here? Let's get a lawyer, who's at fault? Where did it come from? How did it happen in the first place?" And Buddhism's actual answer is, "We don't know, or, it didn't come from anywhere in the first place, because there is no first place. These adventitious defilements from without don't have a beginning. There literally is no beginning." When the question is asked, "There is no beginning" is the answer. There is an ending, however, and the ending is called nirvana: peace, ease, and the light shining forth.

Morality, in Buddhism, is not a matter of guilt and sin. There is no concept equivalent to guilt and sin, because there is no God to require this of us. It is more of a practical matter of cleaning up our act, so that there will be less suffering and less misery for ourselves and for those around us. Because if you've noticed, when human beings are miserable and suffering, they have a way of letting others know about it and spreading that around. So it really would be impractical for me to be peaceful and happy without any concern for the happiness and peace of those around me, because I could never be peaceful and happy if everybody around me is miserable and taking it out on me. There would be no way I could really be peaceful and happy. So morality here is a matter of bringing happiness to our lives. It's actually a practical necessity to reduce suffering and misery.

The assumption is made in Buddhism that we're fundamentally whole and good, that reality itself is by its nature whole and good, and that due to a beginning-less adventitious screw-up – that's nobody's fault but seems to be built into the nature of things – we have strayed from this wholeness and goodness, and because of this, we're unhappy, and we're sick. The purpose of the path of religious practice is to bring us back to health and to wholeness. And it's often remarked that the Buddhist teaching is compared to a doctor's diagnosis and cure, because that's the sense of it – it's for health and wholeness.

Classical Buddhism says that practice consists in three studies or three parts. One part is meditation, one part is ethics or morality, and one part is wisdom. These three studies are like the three legs of a tripod, that all need to be developed equally in order for the vessel to stand with stability. Morality calms and clears the mind from the agitation that comes with shoddy conduct.

This seems to be empirically true, that when you break laws and engage in bad conduct, it makes you nervous. Now you may be very good at handling that nervousness and even channeling the anxiety and the energy. But it is anxiety and it is nervousness, and if you had the chance to look within yourself , you would see that. So that's why morality and ethical conduct is a sort of basis for meditation practice – to calm and clear the mind. Then you can meditate. Meditation deepens and enriches a mind that has a baseline of calmness and clarity, and that mind, deepened and enriched by meditation practice, can really appreciate and really touch its own luminous nature. Maybe that's /////what enlightenment is in Buddhism, is a mind enriched by meditation that can really appreciate its luminous nature, so that there can really be a sense of self-regard and wholeness, not because one believes it, but because one has touched it on one's cushion. Then, based on that sense of the mind's nature, wisdom will cognize, express, and put into action the beauty of that nature. So those are the practices in Buddhism and how morality fits into them. So it's a much more straightforward matter, at least as it appears to us now in our culture, coming from elsewhere. There's suffering, we all, I think, appreciate this. Suffering is not a small, marginal fact of life, it seems to be a fairly central fact. And naturally, we all want to reduce or end suffering for ourselves and others, and so there's a path in which suffering can be reduced and ended, and in that path morality is an absolutely necessary component. So there's no angst here, there's no struggle, there's no need to repress because we understand our suffering and we want to reduce it–that's what we want! So we don't really have to squelch our desire, because our desire, in the end, if we really look within ourselves, is for happiness and peace and we come to understand through our own experience the importance of morality for that. There's no need here for a God to command us–you need a God to command you when you're operating against yourself. You need a force bigger than yourself to frighten you to death so that you won't be doing these bad things that you want to do. Well, we don't have this mechanism in the practice. There's no sense that we are or are not good or bad, there's just the sense of the recognition that a certain kind of conduct will create suffering, a certain kind of conduct will reduce suffering and give us what we need to go deeper and deeper with that reducing and ending of suffering. So morality is simply a part of a program that leads us back to what we are and what we always have been. And there's a sense in Buddhist ethical practice that no one will be perfectly ethical at all times, in other words, human imperfection is a given and an assumption. We don't expect otherwise. But if we're clear about the goal and we will continue to make our best efforts toward it with a good spirit and good expectations, then we'll be successful, however much we can be.

So this is precepts, morality and ethical conduct as early Buddhism saw it. Then it's another story to get from there to the sixteen bodhisattva precepts in Zen, which have a whole other dimension that I haven't mentioned and I won't mention now because that would take too long but in another talk, sometime, elsewhere, I'll mention it. But don't worry, it'll be on the Internet, so you can hear Part Two.

But I have a few footnotes, because since I wrote this talk and first gave it I noticed a few things. Apparently people are thinking, nowadays, about ethics and morality, and there's a lot of thought about it. So maybe you saw, a couple days ago, or last week, David Brooks's column on this subject (sometimes I read David Brooks in the Times, online and he had a column about this). I don't remember exactly what it said, but what I got out of it was that he's talking about new work on morality that compares the long history of philosophical discussion about morality with the simple feeling, the human feeling of doing good. And Brooks doesn't reference Buddhism in his column and I doubt that he's a Buddhist, but he doesn't have to be because contemporary psychology has been so influenced by Buddhism that sometimes it's hard to tell where Buddhism comes into it and where it's just there, you know: crypto-Buddhism.

But this is very much like what I'm saying. There's no doubt that the positive feeling of doing good, and the nervous actual self-harming feeling of not doing good, of doing bad, these things are actually really palpable. If you have access to yourself, and this is the thing about people who do bad actions a lot, they almost invariably have very little access to their inner lives and don't feel–in fact they have pain that they're not aware of often, and therefore out of that pain they're acting in self-destructive ways, right? I mean this is why, we now understand, to a great extent people do bad conduct. And this is reported over and over again by people who work in prisons. Meditation teachers who work in prison are tremendously gratified by the work because they find out that when prisoners are given through meditation practice access to their hearts, they begin to see their inner condition and they begin to be dismayed by what they have done and they begin to heal and they begin to really turn around. Once they have access to what's inside they begin to notice that they've been addicted to a bad feeling, the way you can be addicted to a drug that is harming you. So that these are actual feelings, human feelings of doing good or doing bad. So although Nietzsche might have been wrong, his whole thing about the will to power and so on, he really was expressing something that he felt and saw, that was accurate in the society around him, the power of repression and the amount of force needed to overcome repression, to really give us the permission to look inside and see what's really going on. So anyway, you can look up that David Brooks column, I though it was interesting.

Also, last footnote and then I'm finished, I was also listening to the radio the other day, and there was a Harvard psychologist on the Terry Gross show speaking about child rearing, and we just had a grandchild so I'm interested in child rearing again after many years. So he said something that struck me. He was complaining about the current fad in child rearing for self-esteem. He was saying that every child is constantly being praised and encouraged for everything that that child does: throw the ball far? Great! Drop it? Great! Whatever you do, praise should always be administered because a child needs self-esteem. And he said this is a bad idea, because not everything that a child does is necessarily praiseworthy, and children are smart and they understand that half the praise or 90% of it is fake anyway, and you end up with less self-esteem rather than more when you think that the basis of self-esteem is performance, so you should always be praised on your performance. And he said, why not make virtue the basis of self-esteem? Because virtue, and he used the word virtue which is a very old-fashioned word that nobody ever uses anymore but it really means, literally means in English and in other languages as well, it means the power that we feel inside when we do good, when our actions come from a center where we feel doing good is who we are. And virtue is not a matter of performance, or talent, or acquired skill. It's a human capacity that everyone is capable of. And anybody can manifest virtue beautifully–and suppose that was the basis for self-esteem rather than performance.

So maybe we should be bringing the word "virtue" back into fashion, because a society in which performance, or skill, or appearance, or accomplishment, or comparison one to another is the basis for how we value ourselves, that's a society that is very vulnerable to these old toxic roots that we're trying to overcome. I think we activate those old roots when we base our sense of self-worth and self-esteem on these various performative values. A society in which virtue is emphasized and is the basis for the building of a self and self-esteem is a happy society by comparison. And I think that along with all of our current economic woes and disappointments, it may be that it's not just about the money. It may be that we've invested our whole sense of self and worth in all the things that all this activity represented. And now we're a little bit at a loss. What are we going to do now? Well, maybe this is an answer to that, maybe we need to shift the ground for what we think it means to be a person, what we think makes a person valuable in this world, to oneself and to others.

So, anyway, I wanted to talk to you about that tonight, I've been thinking about it, and while I didn't say it so much in my talk I hope it's obvious to all of you that in our tradition the basis of all of this is not a belief system–I'm not arguing here we should all believe in goodness and virtue, we should all believe that we should be good people–that's not the basis of it. The basis of it is looking within with honesty and understanding your own heart. And that means work on the cushion, meditation practice. There are different ways of approaching this, obviously, but in our tradition that's the way that we approach it–with a minimum of theology and ideology and really privileging the experience that we have, coming back over and over again, over time, with intensity, to the cushion. So if this makes sense to you and you're thinking to yourself, "I would like to make some shift now in the way I am living my life and viewing my life," I think the most powerful thing you can do is establish a meditation practice. The purpose, I think, of a place like this is to support that practice, but most of us in reality probably do it at home regularly because maybe its . . . in New York, every place is very hard to get to–I've found this out. If you want to go anywhere it's, like, very hard. So it's probably hard to come here. So you can't come every day, twice a day or something like that, but you can come with some regularity and you can also meditate at home. And meditation practice exists in a context so there's some teachings, some community, some encouragement, because it's not just like a scientific thing like a pill, take this, call me in the morning, it's a culture.


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