My post from earlier this month sparked a pretty lively debate and got me thinking. It got me thinking about how I’m perceived by you, dear readers, and my own particular viewpoints vis a vi Buddhist ethics or morality. It’s not something I talk about much, but I hint at it, I think. And that hinting of course lacks specificity. And you know how much I loath a general lack of specificity!
There’s a couple of things to think about when talking about Buddhist ethics. The first and, to me, probably the most important thing is that there is no general “Buddhist ethic” that is agreed upon by every iteration of the tradition. Like any religion, like any social thing really, there’s a spectrum of opinion ranging from lose and free-wheeling Buddhists to pretty dogmatic and conservative ones.
But I think we can agree to start with the basic five precepts for Buddhist lay people.* They are to refrain from killing, stealing, false or malicious speech, taking (or selling) intoxicants, or engaging in “sexual misconduct.”
Of course, because of the diversity of Buddhist schools out there, how we interpret these is a bit more complicated. For example, what counts as an intoxicant? Anything that changes your mental perception of the world? Well, that would include caffeine, wouldn’t it? Let alone prescribed anti-depresants. And we don’t want to sound like Tom Cruise, do we? Plus, I’ve come across rather spirited debates about whether the Sanskrit says “taking” or “selling” intoxicants. And depending on what the Sanskrit means, that changes things doesn’t it? Then there’s “false and malicious” speech. According to Richard Gere, swearing constitutes malicious speech. But that’s pretty subjective if you ask me. One language’s swear word is another’s gibberish. Does malicious depend on context? Or is really just a prohibition against lying?
Don’t even get me started on “sexual misconduct.”
Then there’s a wide variety of practical applications of these precepts. In China, the precept against killing generally extends to not eating meat, and back in the day you could tell who was a more committed Buddhist by virtue of the fact that s/he was a vegetarian. In pre-modern Japan, an island country where you eat what comes your way because you can’t rely on imports of fresh vegetables year round, Buddhist monks made long and impassioned polemics about how eating meat (particularly fish) was okay, you’re not going to hell, don’t worry about it. In some South Asian countries, I’ve been told, the laity pays attention to precepts around festivals or holidays but not so much during the rest of the year.
I say all this because, at the end of the day, I think we get into trouble when we remain fixed and attached to one way of “being a Buddhist” based on any particular point of doctrine, practice, or even precepts. And by fixed and attached I mean remaining firmly convinced that there’s a “right” way to practice Buddhism, an “authentic” teaching of the Buddha, or some essential or irreducible bit of Buddhism that, without which, you’re not really a Buddhist but some guy who likes to call himself one but is really a heretic.
This is problematic to me because I think it smacks of arrogance. I’ve said before that we have no direct access to “what the Buddha taught.” We have only indirect access.** That indirect access comes from texts and/or the tradition itself. And when we claim that there is a “right” way to practice, we are necessarily saying that there is a “wrong” way and also invalidating any Buddhist who practices that “wrong” way. While I’m sure that there is a reasonable way to determine who’s really a Buddhist and who isn’t, I’m not comfortable with making that judgement.
The other thing that bothers me about sticking fast to precepts is that the folks I’ve met who have been most attached to precepts have, ironically, also been the ones who reject the “dogmatic” feel of Christianity. Sticking hard and fast to precepts seems like replacing one dogmatic system for another.
However, and this is the big important however, if you don’t read anything else in this post, read the following however, this does not mean that we can run around being amoral nitwits to each other. I think it’s pretty clear that Buddhist precepts and morals are put into place to help us understand that our actions have consequences. Everything we do either promotes spiritual well-being or diminishes spiritual well being. The precepts are guideposts along that path to that end. They are there to help us make better decisions. Nothing more. We can squabble about the details (can I say “fuck”? is it appropriate to a have glass of wine with dinner? is premarital sex “misconduct”?), but just know that none of us can see all ends. The web of karmic consequences is far too complex for any of us know whether or not our actions will, ultimately, be fully positive or fully negative. Life is considerably more complicated. The best we can do is to try to do good and hope for the best.
Like the proverbial sitar player on the Ganges said, prompting Siddhartha to give up his asceticism, “if the string is too slack it will not play; wound too tight and it will break.”
In his “Jodo Shinshu: Shin Buddhism in Medieval Japan,” James Dobbins writes that Shin Buddhists were well known and respected as moderate in drink, loyal to their families, and fair in business dealings.***
In my own view, I think Buddhists should abide by the following simple rule: don’t be a jerk. Do what you can to minimize your negative effects in this life, and help others.
Ethics and morality ought not be more complicated than that.
* I could spend an hour disecting the difference between various monastic vows, the vows for nuns, the longer Bodhisattva precepts, blah blah blah. But for brevity (since this is already a pretty hefty rant) I’ll just stick with the five lay precepts.
** Of course, this is assuming that we’re not enlightened. I, not being enlightened, feel like I don’t have any direct access. If someone comes along and tells me that they have direct access because they’re enlightened, well, maybe they do. But it’s a hard sell. I may be a committed Buddhist, but I’m still a rational pragmatist.
*** And it goes without saying that Jodo Shinshu Buddhists generally do not follow any precepts. And Japanese Buddhists in general have not followed the full monastic vows for centuries. If we decide that to be a Buddhist you have to follow all the monastic vows, we’ve just declared that Japanese Buddhism isn’t really Buddhism. But I could rant on and on about that for days!